A Free-Market Energy Blog

Contra-Capitalism: A Business Syndrome

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 8, 2022

Business as a force for government intervention into the economy is evident with one of the major global economic issues of recent times, climate change. Wind companies, solar companies, energy-efficiency companies, carbon capture and storage investors, etc. Their bread is buttered by special government favor, whether a direct payment from the public treasury or a tax credit or a regulatory preference.

Rent-seeking by business is a contra-capitalist practice, long exposed and criticized by free market economists and classical liberals. But there are two other related practices that classical liberalism has long warned against and censored.

One concerns strategic deceit by a business to outside parties, whether stock analysts or direct investors. In the spirit of Ayn Rand, this can be called philosophic fraud. This syndrome is present with companies that are overhyped and desperately trying to keep the music going.

A third area of contra-capitalism is rank imprudence. This is the most subjective of the three and must be judged after the fact (ex poste) rather than in real time. What might seem to be imprudent in the present can be a business winner in the future.

Contra-capitalism is a term used to explain the rise and fall of Enron. Is it applicable to other major business failures? Is it operative in any of the three parts–a contra-capitalist practice if the firm does not exhibit all of the three?

FTX and Bankman-Fried

Move over Enron! Another ‘contra-capitalist’ company and central figure has emerged: FTX and its founder/leader, Sam Bankman-Fried. This sad story involves a personal/business philosophy with three reinforcing pillars: deceit, arrogance and imprudence, and rent-seeking. The mirage of greatness was camouflaged by a big lie of selflessness and altruism, a story for another day.

Wiki Submission

Here is the submission to Wiki that was not accepted because of its lack of general usage. Perhaps that will change with more examples and explication.

Contra-Capitalism is a term of management theory and business history that refers to corporate conduct contrary to the “best practices” precepts of the bourgeois-capitalist tradition.[1]

The term “contra-capitalism” was coined by Robert L. Bradley Jr. for his book Enron Ascending, volume 3 of his tetralogy on the history of Enron.[2] He claimed that the disparate behaviors most frequently blamed for the fall of Enron were logically and psychologically linked in a way that made them into a mutually reinforcing syndrome of destructive corporate practice. He grouped those behaviors into three categories: Rent-Seeking (profit-seeking without wealth production, typically through political means); Philosophic Fraud (deceitfulness that falls short being criminal); and Imprudence (actions taken in evasion of what one knows or senses is right).[3]  

Bradley’s early understanding of what would become the term “contra-capitalism” was: behaviors opposite to those he characterized as “heroic capitalism” in his tetralogy’s volume 1, Capitalism at Work.[4] But Ayn Rand’s portraits of businessmen-villains in Atlas Shrugged convinced Bradley that much business behavior at Enron was not just “unheroic” conduct; it constituted a syndrome of interconnected behavior diametrically opposed to the capitalist ideal (hence, contra-capitalism).[5] Later authors have argued that the mutually reinforcing linkage among Bradley’s three elements of “contra-capitalism” is a rejection of the central bourgeois-capitalist ideal of pursuing the earned.[6]

Being a pattern of motivated conduct rather than of ideology, contra-capitalism is distinct from the philosophy of anti-capitalism.[7] But its element of rent-seeking does, as a matter of sociology, tend promote crony capitalism[8] (more precisely, the system of “political capitalism”[9]) as a replacement for the political-economy of relatively free markets.[10]

[1] Roger Donway, “The Business Subversion of Markets: Contra-Capitalism,” Econlib, October 4, 2021.

[2] Robert L. Bradley Jr., Enron Ascending: The Forgotten Years, 1984–1996 (Beverly, MA: Scrivener Publishing;Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018), pp. 4–5.

[3] Bradley, Enron Ascending, pp. 59–65.

[4] Robert L. Bradley Jr., Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy (Salem, MA: M&M Scrivener Press, 2009), pp. 15–89.

[5] Robert L. Bradley Jr., “The Two Faces of Capitalism,” The Atlas Society, January 1, 2008. Roger Donway, “Beyond ‘The Money-Making Personality’: Notes toward a Theory of Capitalist Orthopraxy,” The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 21, no. 1 (2021).

[6] Roger Donway, “Contra-capitalism: The Exit Ramp from Market-Oriented Business,” The Independent Review 26, no. 4 (Spring 2022), pp. 595–96.

[7] “Anti-Capitalism,” Wikipedia.

[8] “Crony Capitalism,” Wikipedia.

[9] Randall G. Holcombe, Political Capitalism: How Economic and Political Power is Made and Maintained (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[10] Michael C. Munger and Mario Villarreal-Diaz, “The Road to Crony Capitalism,” The Independent Review 23, no. 3 (Winter 2018/19). Available at:

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