George Ford Smith – February 20, 2023
Listen to the Audio Mises Wire version of this article.
On the dedication page of Ron Paul’s The Revolution: A Manifesto, we find these words:
“To my supporters: I have never been more humbled and honored than by your selfless devotion to freedom and the Constitution.”
The modifier “selfless” is intended as a moral tribute. Imagine instead if he had written “selfish.” How would that go over?
What are the facts? Can we really say that people who fight for freedom are acting in self-denial? Wouldn’t freedom be an infinitely better condition to live under than the controlled society we now have or the totalitarian slave state we’re edging toward? And if this is true, wouldn’t it be correct to say Paul’s supporters act in their conscientious self-interest, and therefore their support should be considered selfish?
So why didn’t he use that word?
As authors Yaron Brook and Don Watkins argue in their stimulating book, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, it is the widespread inability to affirm the self that accounts for the continuing decline of freedom. And since political freedom implies economic freedom, traditional selfless morality becomes capitalism’s greatest enemy.
The Triumph of Greed?
When the financial crisis arrived in 2007–2008, capitalism’s enemies had no trouble spotting whom they believed were the culprits: greedy businessmen and speculators. Once again, the government had trusted them with freedom, and once again their insatiable greed brought the economy to its knees. But Brook and Watkins point out what should be obvious, that freedom in economic affairs had been increasingly restricted for decades:
Because the conventional view of selfishness remained entrenched, it was not the “public servants” in Washington who took the blame. . . .
The true lesson of the financial crisis is exactly the opposite of what the pundits concluded. The conventional view is that the free market failed. In fact, it was the unfree market that failed, and it is more freedom that is the solution.
As they tell us later while discussing soaring healthcare costs:
It’s no accident that we don’t have a computer crisis, or a hair salon crisis, or a veterinary crisis. Nor is it an accident that we did have a housing and financial crisis. Along with housing and finance, medicine is one of the most regulated industries in the United States. (emphasis added)
But wait—Bernie Madoff was selfish, was he not? He was trusted and left free to gain as much money as he could, which for him meant cheating his clients through an elaborate Ponzi scheme. Could it not be argued that the combination of freedom and selfishness cost his clients billions?
Ask almost anyone to name an example of a selfish person, and Madoff becomes a prime candidate. “To be selfish is to be like Madoff,” the authors write, “to screw anyone, even family and friends, in order to get more, more, more for me, me, me. Madoff is just the latest poster boy for the evil of selfishness.”
But there’s a problem with this portrayal of selfishness—it includes people who don’t swindle others to get ahead. It includes people who make a lot of money by producing goods that others value. It includes people like Steve Jobs, “who was routinely derided as selfish” and was condemned for focusing on profit rather than philanthropy. A 2006 column in Wired put it more bluntly: Jobs was “nothing more than a greedy capitalist who’s amassed an obscene fortune. It’s shameful,” adding that “he skates away from the responsibilities that come with great wealth and power.”
Brook and Watkins reject this analysis:
Does it really make sense to equate producers like Jobs with criminals like Madoff—to accuse them of the same dark motive and the same moral crime (in spirit, if not in scale)? One creates wealth; the other steals it. One thrives by trading with other people; the other destroys the lives of everyone he touches. One works incredibly hard to build a product or company he can be proud of; the other spends his time trying to cover up the fact that he has nothing to be proud of.
Anyone who takes the time to look at how businesses actually succeed will find, in most cases, “not ruthless exploitation but mutually beneficial production and trade; an Apple economy, not a Madoff economy.”
This view of trade runs counter to the conventional notion of trade as a zero-sum (win/lose) game. Yesterday, I bought groceries at a local supermarket. If trade is a zero-sum game, then one of us lost. I came home with the groceries I wanted, and the supermarket had the money it wanted—a win/win exchange. What we each gave up in trade, we gave up voluntarily. I didn’t have to settle on that supermarket; I could have gone elsewhere. No one forces the supermarket to stay in business; if it can’t make a profit, it will close. Right now, it’s mutually beneficial for me to shop there and for the store to stay open.
In this sense, each of us was pursuing his own rational self-interest, what Ayn Rand defined as selfish. The store doesn’t sell groceries under cost as a matter of charity, nor do I shop there to do it a favor.
Should the supermarket do more than offer goods I want at prices I can afford? Should it be “skating” toward other goals that the “right” people regard as its “social responsibilities”?
To get them to swallow the idea that it’s their duty to serve and sacrifice, the altruistic push for corporate “social responsibility” has taught businessmen that their choice is either some monomaniacal focus on the “bottom line”—one that involves ignoring many of the factors that determine a company’s bottom line—or a mawkish pursuit of a “service” agenda. . . .
Any company that achieves productive success [such as my local supermarket or Apple] should self-confidently reject calls to “give back.” It created wealth—it has nothing to atone for.
As the authors conclude, “the path to profits is paved in principle,” not chicanery or crime—something the skaters of this world will likely never understand.
Image source: Adobe Stock