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Power Tends to Corrupt and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely, Part I — Michael McTague

The coronavirus has brought about the return of the Puritan spirit.
Michael McTague, Ph.D., is executive vice president at private equity firm Able Global Partners in New York.
Michael McTague, Ph.D., is executive vice president at private equity firm Able Global Partners in New York.

Image source: Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock

September 2020 — Myth Buster

The coronavirus pandemic blocks out all other concerns. One worry we ought to face is the return of the Puritan spirit. Immortalized — and criticized — in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the Puritan desire to eradicate evil returns at various times in history. Prohibition provides a powerful example, aimed at wiping out the evils of liquor. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, novels played a big part in persuading people to take on hot political issues. Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers the most dramatic example. Ten Nights in a Bar Room described the horrors of excessive liquor use. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led to tough legislation in meat packing. The mention of his name still brings a shudder in the Tyson Foods board room. It is not surprising that a tough, moral vehemence finds its way into public discourse once again.

Investors may be shocked to hear this. Prohibition departed with the coming of the New Deal. Today, a higher percentage of people drink liquor but a lower percentage drink excessively. Liquor has long since lost its sting. No one would seriously advocate banning liquor in today’s environment. Not long ago, Japan’s Suntory acquired Jim Beam and made itself felt in the US as another powerful, wealthy liquor producer, joining Anheuser-Busch InBev, Diageo and others.

This great American Puritan trait returns with the arrival of the pure anti-virus governors. (Sinclair, their predecessor, ran for Governor of California unsuccessfully in 1934.) Ready to stop all commerce, all meetings, all social gatherings, this new core of liberal Puritans — an oxymoron to be sure — snipes at non believers. Suggest that the country needs its economy to return or that looting is wrong, and you will be pilloried for choosing money and property over life and freedom. In their view, you are a virtual murderer, but not the Zoom kind of virtual. And if you call these Puritans Puritans, which we are doing, you will be accused of suffering from dementia. [Editor’s note: A corresponding case can be made for the obstinacy of modern conservative Puritans that is somewhat less oxymoronic, but that’s a topic for another day.]

A Rose by Any Other Name

Contemporary Puritans do not look, talk or dress like Puritans of old, nor do they ban the same things. The Scarlet Letter concerned adultery and having children out of wedlock. Unlike Cotton Mather, Billy Sunday and Carry Nation, today’s Puritans are not bothered by children out of wedlock. Their solution is to provide financial support for single mothers.

Today’s Puritans take a secular approach. What really makes a Puritan? Here is the link among Oliver Cromwell, Massachusetts Bay and modern America. Puritans believe they are right and their opponents are evil. Of course, most people believe they are right. But, a second Puritan trait is to do something about it, even something radical or violent. If you disagree, they will shut you down, make you sorry and prevent you from mounting a challenge. A third Puritan trait is the conviction that their opponents are evil through and through, not just wrong but evil. In a civilized time when war making is not popular, they will not shoot you but they will criticize you online, file lawsuits and seek injunctions.

Puritans reveal a weakness. They are so wedded to their beliefs that they really think other people will eventually agree with them, even after being insulted, harangued and tortured. Just think of how this works. Puritan Governors prevent groups of more than two from congregating. In Detroit, basketball hoops are removed from public places. (Note that in basketball, a group of two even takes place during a fast break.) The current California Governor stated, “There just aren’t enough law enforcement [officers] in California to force people to behave responsibly.” People post pictures on Facebook and Twitter of neighbors and co-workers who violate stay-at-home rules. A few protest. But the Puritans push forward. After a few arrests and a lot of name calling, the loquacious opponents will surely see the error of their ways, or so the Puritans think.

An Oxymoron to Beat All Oxymorons

The Puritan Governors form the tip of the iceberg. What are Silicon Valley leaders Facebook and Google doing to deal with the corona virus? They look for social connections available through the relationships people make online, trying to discover the next COVID-19 hot spots. If you can track someone’s contacts and their personal plans, you might get an idea of how likely it is for people in the highly affected areas to spread the disease. Doesn’t that mean they are pushing forward with the things that got them into trouble, i.e., spying on individuals and sharing private data? And, doesn’t it mean that elected officials and research scientists are happy for the “assistance?” Also included in the group is MicroMultiCopter, the manufacturer of spying-oriented drones, which are already widely used in China. Cellebrite and NSO Group also tout their ability to track corona virus spreaders. (Note that all three are privately held and beholden to no broad shareholder base!) Even though they could, none of these companies reports people who have children out of wedlock or drink liquor. The same politicians who loved to collect fines for illegal spying now love to collect private information, an activity that is prevented by law. What an oxymoron!

The first entry of this new series raises interesting insights into the natural tendency to suppress everyone and everything based on one’s understanding of the truth. This is a time when cyber security companies FireEye and Fortinet join Citrix, Zoom, Clorox and liquor stores boasting hefty profits. The series provides a few humorous insights into the peculiar twists and turns of how people react to challenges.


Michael McTague, Ph.D. is Executive Vice President at Able Global Partners in New York, a private equity firm, and author of Secrets of Effective Business Plans.

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