The Four Principles of Prosperity
All economic theories are statements about what sort of people we are, or rather, what sort of people we should be. Economics has homo economicus, economic man, the rational utility maximizer who always acts in his or her own interest. We know that humans aren’t rational and we know that we don’t always do what is best for us, or even know what it is, but economics stands, nonetheless.
Economic man is prescriptive: it is about how we believe we should act. In ordinary terms a rational utility maximizer is a greedy, selfish bastard: a functional sociopath. They are concerned with other people’s well-being precisely and only to the extent that that affects their own. That we strive to realize this philosophy in our society is obvious from a perfunctory look at how we run our primary economic institutions: corporations. Our society insists and has put into law that corporations be concerned only with profit and nothing else(x). Our culture celebrates greed, we declare that “greed is good”. We believe that if everyone acts selfishly, for themselves, in freely agreed upon contracts, no matter how unequal the power of the people entering into them “freely”, that maximum well-being will result.
It took a great deal of intellectual labor to make being a greedy selfish bastard intellectually respectable:
To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited. It differs from a rock or a river in one important respect: it is inclined to hit back. — Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene”, pg 66 (30th ann. edition)
If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.
– Ayn Rand(x)
Well first of all, tell me: Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course, none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow who’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests. — Milton Friedman
And the theory has been put to the test. In Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union western economists and development experts instituted it as shock therapy and the Russian population collapsed, the life span of Russians dropped, and happiness cratered for over a decade.(x) One of the harshest totalitarian states in history, and people were happier in it than what our free market apostles wrought.
Since the 70s or 80s, in most developed countries we have been slashing taxes, cutting social benefits, and extolling the benefits of free markets, by which we mean not free markets, but markets which the government does not work to keep either free or fair. The results are in: wages have stagnated, the rich have become the richest rich in world history, exceeding even those of the Gilded Age, and the developed world is in semi-permanent crisis, with Europe a shambles and America unable to produce good jobs and running record deficits. Food prices are soaring, energy prices are through the roof and the Middle East is in flames.
By their fruits you shall judge them and the idea that greedy people operating completely selfishly will lead to everyone being better off has produced its bitter harvest. This is not the first time it has done so. The famous economist of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes acidly quipped that “Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all. “*
The idea is absurd, and it has proved so in practice. The market, even the free market, properly understood, is powerful and prosperity requires it. But allowing unalloyed greed to be the principle that rules us, by which we run our societies, has proved disastrous, not just to our prosperity but to our liberty and to our democracy.
If we want more prosperous societies, which is to say, societies where affluence is widespread, we need to align our private morals and our public ethics. We cannot expect to exalt selfishness and greed and to always put ourselves and the few people we love first, second and last, and expect that miraculously, our worst of motives will lead to the best of results for people we don’t care about. We cannot put functional sociopaths in charge of our economic and political organizations and expect them to produce results which are good for anybody but themselves and the few people they need to keep happy in order to make themselves richer. We can’t expect widespread affluence when we tell ourselves that people are bastards who do, and should, look out only for themselves.
A society which creates widespread affluence must be based on four principles, and must elevate and honor people who embody those four principles.
Fairness. Everyone must be treated equally within the requirements of their needs. This does not mean being treated the same, a child with learning disabilities should not be treated the same as one who is gifted, but both should go to the same school system, and be treated no differently regardless of who their parents are or how much money they have. The wealthy and powerful must use the same institutions as the middle class and the poor for no system will work if it is not in the interests of the rich, powerful and influential that it does so.
Kindness. Instead of asking “What’s in it for me?”, we must ask that oldest of moral questions: “How would I want to be treated if I were them?” Kindness is not weakness, it is a refusal to allow yourself to become an evil person in response to evil. Finland, which treats its prisoners with kindness that astounds Americans, has ex-convicts who re-offend at half the rate of American prisoners(x). As justice must always be tempered with mercy, and mercy always tempered with justice, so kindness must be tempered with fairness. Being kind does not mean being a mark, it means giving people a chance, and treating them first with compassion.
Generosity. Greatness is not measured by what you have taken, by what you have hoarded, or by who dies with the most. It is measured by who has given the most and by who has made the most people’s lives better. The resources we have created are meant to be used; the more we share them, the more we make others’ lives better and the more they, in turn, can make our lives better. Happier, healthier, more affluent people are better for the economy and more fun besides. Economic cripples, unable to participate fully in society are in no one’s interest. Generosity, combined with the compassion which asks “what do they need?” helps everyone.
Future Oriented. The past gave birth to the present, which midwifes the future. The winners of the past, those who built the past, have their rewards in their time, but cannot be allowed to postpone the future till they can control it. Every society changes, or it dies. Every economic model must be modified in time. The old cannot insist that the world they grew up in is the world their grown children will live in.
These four principles can be embodied both by individuals and societies They are the characteristics of a generous dynamic society, in which everyone contributes, everyone cares and is cared for and everyone works to build the future. And they are not schizophrenic attributes: people can act this way in their individual lives. It is not required that people be kind and loving and generous to their family and friends, but ruthless and greedy in their business or political life.
We’ve given greed and selfishness a fair shot. More than a fair shot. More than a fair shot. We’ve destroyed uncounted lives and driven our own economies to the brink of disaster and then beyond. It is time to stop expecting that acting horribly will lead to good. It hasn’t worked and it won’t work. Instead it is time to try acting generously, kindly, and fairly. It is time to make sure that everyone shares in the wealth our societies are capable of creating. We should do this not just because the vast majority of us will do better, but because it is the right thing to do. It would be one thing if being bastards really did lead to the greater good and was a regrettable evil, but it isn’t. So, having exhausted every other option, perhaps it is time to, with a weary sigh, return to being good, to do unto our neighbors as they would have us do unto them.
It is time to be better people and to reap the rewards of doing so. It is time to correct those who prefer to be greedy, selfish bastards. It is time to return to affluence for all, rather than riches for a few. And it is time to end the rein of the greedy, selfish bastards.
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