The New York Post has a brief report on a 23-year-old New Yorker who reaped more than $120,000 in revenue by selling "Bin Laden Is Dead" t-shirts: "Maurice Harary, 23, went straight to his New York apartment when he heard Sunday that bin Laden was killed by US forces ....He immediately began building a website to sell his 'bin Laden is dead' T-shirts. Harary claimed that his site went live at 3:30 a.m. local time Monday and sold 10,000 T-shirts at $12 each by Tuesday night."
Critics of capitalism tend to focus on those who get rich because of luck. But here's a guy who made a lot of money in a short period of time by working hard when most other people were either asleep or out partying. It reminded me of that Vanity Fair excerpt about Bill Gates and Paul Allen staying up late and on weekends to build Microsoft's first piece of software.
And if you combine it with Arthur Brooks' point about taxation and redistribution and income inequality: "In general, when resources are perceived as unearned, people think it fair that they be split up somewhat evenly. But when merit is involved, people believe it is fair to reward it with more money."
Many people tend to think of capitalism as either immoral or morally neutral. But, as Yuval Levin points out, Adam Smith wasn't just an economist but a moral philosopher who believed that capitalism would help shape character by encouraging discipline and the moderate virtures of prudence, restraint, industry, thrift, probity, punctuality, and self-control. If you believe hard work, or "industry," is a virtue, then a system in which that hard work is rewarded makes sense.
There are utilitarian virtues to capitalism as well as moral ones — because Mr. Harary stayed up late, people who wanted to buy a "bin Laden is dead" t-shirt were able to do so quickly. In other words, there are benefits for the consumers as well as for the producers.
Of course, there are plenty of people who work hard late at night and don't make as much money as either Bill Gates or Maurice Harary. And even if people get where they are in part because of luck — say, an actor or model born with incredible good looks, or a singer born with an incredible voice, or a lottery winner — it doesn't necessarily follow that everyone else should take away their property. But the connection between hard work, risk-taking, and reward seems to me to be central to a capitalist system, and worth celebrating, or at least noting, when one finds examples of it.
It's also worth noting that the people set up to best take immediate advantage of this particular sort of opportunity, at least at the moment, aren't Walmart or Amazon.com (which now has at least 20 Bin Laden Is Dead t-shirt choices) or some other retail giant (though who knows, they may get in on the fulfillment somehow), but individual entrepreneurs.