Are Entrepreneurs Just Con Men?

America loves a good hustler.

America loves a good con. Take the much-lauded American Hustle: Christian Bale's and Amy Adams's inveterate hustlers are far more lovable than Bradley Cooper's conniving FBI agent. See, too, The Music Man, The Sting, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As an audience, we're more than happy to put ourselves in the shoes of a lying scoundrel.

"It has ever been thus," James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker. The con artist has become "the classic American antihero."

Why? According to Surowiecki, the con is, in a way, fulfillment of the American dream:

Con artists are independent and typically self-made. They don’t have to kowtow to a boss—no small thing in a country in which people have always longed to strike out on their own. They succeed or fail based on their wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.

Image: Stashed cash via Shutterstock

In the 21st century, who traffics in the most hope and hype? The entrepreneur. The distance between criminal and entrepreneur is really not that vast: a 2013 longitudinal study found that entrepreneurs were more likely to run into trouble with the law as teens. And in the startup world, being able to sell the idea of a profitable future product can be as important as the product itself.

"The greatest business icon of our era, Steve Jobs, was legendary for his 'reality-distortion field,' which allowed him to convince people that improbable outcomes were not just possible but certain," Surowiecki notes. Long before iPods, iPhones, and MacBooks made their way into the hands of just about every hip young tastemaker in America, Jobs had to convince people of that reality. In the end, he was right—but did that make it any less of a con? As Surowiecki writes: "...that unquantifiable mélange of risk, hope, and hype provides both the capitalist’s formula for transforming the world and the con artist’s stratagem for turning your money into his money."

Read more at the New Yorker.

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2 Comments

  • Maybe a few of us entrepreneurs have some traits of con artists but most don't come close. We do have to sell a vision of a future for some product but that is no different than ordinary sales people in many industries. Unfortunately most entrepreneurs aren't good at this - which means that most entrepreneurs aren't even close to con artists like Bernie Madoff and the rest.