Friday, November 09, 2007

The Book That Changed My Life

Stuart K. Hayashi

There is a wonderful book about economic freedom that changed my life, and it is emphatically not Atlas Shrugged. The truly influential book is of the same author, however -- Ayn Rand.

The book that really rocked my world was the nonfiction The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism.

Of course, many people are shocked and horrified by the title. When I sat in public and read it, many passers-by looked at the title and then gave me the most . . . er, interesting stares and glares. But that is precisely the point. The book has the title it does because it intends to demystify the horribly overused epithet of "selfishness."

The problem with the word "selfishness" is that it has two meanings. The first meaning is the conventional meaning -- it is bad to be "selfish" because a "selfish" person lies, steals, and murders other people for his own benefit. That is "selfishness" as it is commonly understood.

However, there is another type of person commonly accused of being "selfish" -- the honest, hardworking entrepreneur. Suppose that Entrepreneur Hank respects other people's rights -- he does not lie, steal, or cheat anyone. In fact, his business creates many jobs and products that benefit other people. If Entrepreneur Hank is in the pharmaceutical industry, his products and services might even prolong many people's lives.

But what if one of Entrepreneur Hank's main motivations is to make a lot of money for himself and his family, so that he might be able to buy a big mansion, hire a butler and maids, and procure a big yacht and many other expensive toys? Many advocates of government regulation accuse Entrepreneur Hank of being "selfish" in this case. And the dictionary definition does indeed apply in this situation -- Entrepreneur Hank is looking out of his own interests, and he is taking care of himself. The profit motive, by its very nature, is self-oriented.

The accusation of "selfishness" will be applied even more vociferously toward Entrepreneur Hank if he objects to government regulations that forcibly redistribute much of his income to poorer people. If he wants to protect his own private property, when other people demand that he be forced to hand over his property to them, is he not being "selfish"?

Note that Entrepreneur Hank is not even in the same category as the "selfish" robber and murderer. Yet all of the negative connotations of "selfishness" that come from the robber/killer are then attached to Entrepreneur Hank, just because the "robber" and Entrepreneur Hank have this in common: they look out for their own self-interest, and so the word "selfish" technically applies to them.

Many conservatives and libertarians become defensive about the "selfish" label, and so they come up with all sorts of unconvincing arguments about how a self-interested, self-made billionaire entrepreneur is somehow behaving in a materially self-sacrificial manner when pursuing wealth. That doesn't work. Advocates of regulation do not buy it, and I don't either.

Thus, we are fortunate that Ayn Rand has come along and cleared the air on the issue. She makes clear to us in The Virtue of Selfishness that there is nothing inherently evil about peaceably living in accordance with one's own self-interest.

As I have written elsewhere,

The real problem isn't "pro-self-ism," but "anti-others-ism."

This is especially true because, contrary to a popular Marxian fallacy that pervades the thought of too many people, one man's gain does not translate into material losses for someone else. In the market economy, entrepreneur and customer work together for mutual gains.

There is much discussion of this in Atlas Shrugged, but that is fiction. How does one apply such philosophic insights to everyday living? That is superbly answered in the nonfiction Virtue of Selfishness.

This same tome also deals much with issues pertaining to government. It is actually the book that best explains why a morally ideal government would be financed consensually, rather than with compulsory taxation.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from it.

P. 126:

The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships -- thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.

P. 106:

Remember that there is no such dichotomy as "human rights" versus "property rights." No human rights can exist without property rights. Since material goods are produced by the mind and effort of individual men, and are needed to sustain their lives, if the producer does not own the result of his effort, he does not own his life. To deny property rights is to turn men into property owned by the state. Whoever claims the "right" to "redistribute" the wealth produced by others is claiming the "right" to treat other human beings as chattel.

P. 110:

Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all others: it is not a right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it.

P. 113-14:

If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.

Any alleged "right" of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.

No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty or any involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as "the right to enslave."

A right does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one's own effort.

P. 114:

There is no such thing as "a right to a job" -- there is only the right of free trade, that is: a man's right to take a job if another man chooses to hire him. There is no "right to a home," only the right of free trade: the right to build a home or to buy it. There are no "rights to a 'fair' wage or a 'fair' price" if no one chooses to pay it, to hire a man or to buy his product. [...] There are only the Rights of Man -- rights possessed by every individual man and by all men as individuals.

P. 156:

A man's rights are not violated by a private individual's refusal to deal with him.

P. 115:

Potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man's rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims. When unlimited and unrestricted by individual rights, a government is men's deadliest enemy.

P. 103:

Since there is no such entity as "the public," since the public is merely a number of individuals, any claimed or implied conflict of "the public interest" with private interests means that the interests of some men are to be sacrificed to the interests and wishes of others. Since the concept is so conveniently undefinable, its use rests only on any given gang's ability to proclaim that "The public, c'est moi ['is me']" -- and to maintain the claim at the point of a gun.

P. 165-66:

Many professors use the Argument from Intimidation to stifle independent thinking among students, to evade questions they cannot answer, to discourage any critical analysis of their arbitrary assumptions or any departure from the intellectual status quo. [...]

"Professor X"? (X standing for the name of a distinguished theorist of free-enterprise economics.) "Are you quoting Professor X? Oh no, not really!" -- followed by a sarcastic chuckle intended to convey that Professor X has been thoroughly discredited. (By whom?[...)]

Such teachers are frequently assisted by the "liberal" goon squad of the classroom, who burst into laughter at appropriate moments.

P. 154:

But the smallest minority on Earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights, cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.

P. 130:

A unilateral breach of contract involves an indirect use of physical force: it consists, in essence, of one man receiving the material values, goods or services of another, then refusing to pay for them and thus keeping them by force (by mere physical possession), not by right -- i.e., keeping them without the consent of their owner.

P. 108:

Individual rights are the means of subordinating Society to moral law.

P. 121:

A nation that violates the rights of its own citizens cannot claim any rights whatsover. [...]

The right of "the self-determination of nations" applies only to free societies or to societies seeking to establish freedom; it does not apply to dictatorships. Just as an individual's right to free action does not include the "right" to commit crimes (that is, to violate the rights of others), so the right of a nation to determine its own form of government does not include the right to establish a slave society (that is, to legalize the enslavement of some men by others). There is no such thing as a right to enslave. A nation can do it, just as a man can become a criminal -- but neither can do it by right.

There are so many more gems in the book.

If you think you've seen it all in Atlas Shrugged, you haven't seen anything yet. Atlas Shrugged is only a doorway to a land of new wisdom about personal and economic freedom. The Virtue of Selfishness is a fantastic guide for further traveling down this road of enlightenment. :-)

And, for more information, here are some videos from Ayn Rand expert Brandon Cropper.

* "Selfish -- Did Ayn Rand Choose a Bad Word for Her Ethics?"

* "I'm Selfish" (in two installments)


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