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Opinion Elon Musk still has to answer to others

Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in January 2020. (Steve Nesius/Reuters)
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Since striking a deal to buy Twitter, Elon Musk has tweeted a poop emoji at its chief executive; incited Twitter attacks, some racist, against an Indian American senior official at the company; and behaved as though a man of his heroic vision should be allowed to brush aside the law. Whether the Twitter deal is consummated, more juvenile shock tactics — standard behavior from Musk — are likely. But when the saga is over, there will be a consolation. Despite the popular suspicion that billionaires operate with impunity, the opposite is often true.

The United States remains the world’s most powerful economy precisely because it navigates the balance between celebrating and constraining its titans. Sleepy social democracies, excessively suspicious of entrepreneurship and innovation, tend toward stagnation. Look at the past half-century in Europe. At the other extreme, rickety kleptocracies (think Russia and other petro-states) are plagued by unconstrained oligarchs who plunder at will. The United States has generally avoided both of these errors. Musk has founded multiple disruptive companies, including an electric car company that represents a giant leap forward against climate change. But when his behavior becomes too erratic, legal and institutional forces combine to box him in.

This, of course, is true for all American tech magnates, despite the common impression that they ignore the rules. Steve Jobs, remembered posthumously as Saint Steve of the Valley, was as brattish as Musk in his early years: He denied paternity of his first daughter for years; cheated his friend and Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak; and sometimes parked in handicapped spaces in the company lot. Fortunately, there were consequences. Jobs was booted out of Apple. He had to grow up before he was welcomed back.

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Bill Gates, a great businessman and even greater philanthropist, also had his toxic moments: He abused the monopoly power of his company, Microsoft, to crush the upstart browser outfit Netscape. He, too, paid a price: The feds sued and two courts ruled Microsoft guilty. Whatever one thinks of the final settlement, both Gates and Microsoft suffered a time-consuming setback.

Facebook, now Meta, is everyone’s favorite example of Big Tech run amok. But founder Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled before Congress to answer for his company’s behavior. He has been forced to take content moderation more seriously and has empowered a tribunal of worthies to second-guess his decisions. His latitude to start new businesses has been circumscribed. The public reaction to his plan for a Facebook currency was so negative that the project was abandoned.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of the payments innovator PayPal and the defense contractor Palantir, is another favorite target. This is Thiel’s own fault: Although he is among the nation’s most thoughtful venture capitalists, he appeared rather less thoughtful — to put it mildly — when he supported Donald Trump for president in 2016. But Thiel’s story also shows the limits to the power of titans. He failed in his attempts to influence Trump’s important personnel choices and soon drifted off to the sidelines.

Which brings us back to Musk. He, too, has faced limits and consequences. When he behaved too imperiously as chief executive of PayPal, his lieutenants ejected him, and Thiel got his job. When Musk invented a story about taking Tesla private, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued him for fraud and forced him to accept a multimillion-dollar fine. Tesla has faced lawsuits over allegations of sexual and racial harassment. No matter how rich he is, Musk operates within a system that tries to hold him to account.

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Today, Musk’s clownish antics are generating pushback of at least four types. Tesla investors, worried that Musk will be distracted by a Twitter acquisition, have wiped billions of dollars off the value of Musk’s shares. Twitter employees, infuriated by Musk’s cyberbullying of their colleagues, are in open rebellion — and some have walked out. The SEC is investigating Musk for late disclosure of his growing stake in Twitter and may have questions about his comment at a private conference that he might renegotiate his acquisition price. Finally, there is Musk’s dubious contention that he might be free to withdraw his bid altogether because the number of fake Twitter accounts could be greater than previously disclosed. That is a point that Delaware courts will decide.

Tech titans do good things for society. They drive innovation, creating stuff that people want. They challenge moneyed incumbents (if there is one thing worse than a plutocracy, it is a plutocracy of old wealth). They create mobility further down the ladder, because fast-growing tech companies pay better wages to ordinary workers than old-economy rivals.

But titans, by their nature, are often hyper-competitive egomaniacs. You may doubt that enough is done to constrain them. But relative to other countries, the United States comes closer to getting the balance right.