When I first heard that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, was a libertarian, I laughed out loud, because I thought it was a joke. Bezos’s company, after all, is based on the Internet, which was created during the Cold War by a military research-and-development arm of the federal government, the Advanced Research Projects Agency. No Arpanet, no Internet. No Internet, no Amazon, no $25 billion personal fortune for Jeff Bezos.
Why am I writing about Bezos now? For exactly the reason you might suspect: because of his pending purchase of The Washington Post. Call me naive, if you like, but I think that if you’re going to own a high-class journalistic enterprise like The Post, whose job is to call powerful forces to account, you should expect to be called to account yourself.
But good luck trying to get that done when it comes to Bezos.
When I exposed the thesis of this column to Amazon, I couldn’t even get a response, much less an interview.
When Peter Elkind, a colleague of mine at Fortune magazine who spent months working on a must-read cover story called “Amazon’s (Not So Secret) War on Taxes” (June 2013 issue), tried to talk to Bezos about his business and personal philosophies, he was stonewalled. That, of course, was before Bezos’s deal to buy The Post surfaced.
If you check the numerous articles about Bezos — including Fortune’s 2012 businessperson-of-the-year story and the interviews that he’s done — you see that he ducks and weaves when he’s asked about libertarianism. But consider this anecdote, courtesy of Sheldon Kaphan, formerly Amazon’s chief technology officer, and Bezos’s first hire at the firm.
Kaphan says he once heard Bezos say, “If the government hadn’t invented the Internet, private enterprise would have done it.” Yeah, right, and defeated the Soviet Union, too.
Look. As long as Bezos was doing nothing but running Amazon, there wasn’t much reason for people to care about his politics. I certainly didn’t care about them. But when you’re about to become a major force in the political life of Washington by buying a diminished but still immensely powerful outlet like The Post, that’s a different story.
No matter what Bezos says now, once his purchase of The Post closes, scheduled for the fall, he’s almost certain to begin imposing his standards and beliefs on The Post, or at least on its opinion pages.
For better or worse, that’s what newspaper owners do — but I’d at least like to hear from Bezos what his beliefs are and to have him reconcile the question of his being a libertarian who’s benefited immensely from taxpayers’ R&D money. A core belief of libertarianism is that ideas will prevail in a free marketplace. And if you know about markets, you know the key to making them efficient and fair is for as many players to have as much information as possible.
Finally, I can’t forget what happened after Rupert Murdoch bought the then-upscale New York Post from its liberal owner, Dorothy Schiff, in 1976. Murdoch assured the paper’s staff that he’d retain the Post’s essential character as a serious newspaper. And we all know how that turned out.
Disclosure: I am a retiree of and own stock in The Washington Post Co., and The Post pays Fortune for the right to run my work.
Sloan is Fortune magazine’s senior editor at large.