One of the more common critiques of Capitalism is that due to its focus on self-interested incentives that it promotes a selfish society. While there are those who object to this classification, but consider that Ayn Rand herself authored a book titled “The Virtue of Selfishness which would understandably cause some confusion. However, the irony is that in order to compete with “market forces” you actually need to put a greater focus on the “other” in order to sell your product or goods. As I hope to explain, in order to succeed in a capitalistic economy, one must have a greater appreciation for the needs of other people.
Consider a top story posted this past week on Drudge that “Youth Unemployment Hits Record High“. Associated with this story was the following picture of a protester holding a sign proclaiming “A Job is a Right”:
Such sentiments are not uncommon among frustrated protesters who demand that someone, most often the government, provide jobs:
Or this protester demanding “Good Jobs! Jobs for all NOW!”
To assume that having a job is a “right” implies that someone else has the “duty” to provide one with a job, presumably one which satisfactorily meets the conditions, environment, wages, and fulfillment that the individual job seeker expects. Such expectations of course is not only unrealistic, but I would daresay a selfish demand on others.
One’s worth as an employee is only commensurate with the value you provide to someone else, which is the main reason why certain skills demand higher wages in the marketplace. If you can generate billions of dollars for your company, you will likely be compensated at a greater rate than the maintenance workers who provide a necessary service, though of lesser value. If even the most talented of workers may be laid off, in the capitalistic economy, the worker must find an employer to whom he could provide the desired value either with the skills he currently possesses or he must acquire additional skills to increase his marketability.
As with any market, the trick is not to find what suits yourself, but what is valuable to others. This requires thinking beyond one’s immediate personal needs or desires for in order to make ourselves marketable we do not demand from our bosses or clients, but we strive to understand them to service them better.1 As any sales rep will tell you, if you don’t meet the needs of your customers, you won’t last very long.
It is the very self-interest of capitalism, with its market forces dictated by incentive and consumption, which ultimately compels us to understand each other as individuals better than any other system.
1. Or manipulate them into perceiving we are providing value, in which case the inherently subjective measure of value is still perceived.
A frum rav citing Objectivist philosophy approvingly. I think you’re my hero.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that having the government provide things makes people as individuals stingier. Tzedaka affects the giver every bit as much as it affects the recipient, if not more so. And having the government take your money whether you want them to or not and distribute it as they wish, with you cut out of the process, takes that away from us. Look at the vast amounts that are given despite the government tax burden. And imagine how much people would give if they were allowed to feel the personal pleasure of having done something benevolent.
That’s actually part of an article I’ve been working on.
There wasn’t sufficient room in the Comments box to respond to this, I’ve posted mine here:
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (today’s Daf Yomi) talks about how the Roman’s and Persian’s will be punished even though they claimed that they built and developed the world to serve G-d and to ease the Jewish People’s life. G-d responds by saying that you did all of this for purely selfish motives and cannot be rewarded (or spared punishment) for that alone
While I do agree that Ayn Rand’s philosophy holds an attraction to many especially those who are hard-working and successful. And I will even agree that such a philosophy would be ideal for non-jews. However for the Jewish people who are commanded to be kind, to give charity, to help those who are incapable, her philosophy would not apply.
sure, if your point is that “you can’t be a successful capitalist and completely ignore the existence or preferences of others,” fine. but dig a little deeper. you describe a treatment of others as means, not as ends. does capitalism push us to “understand” each other as human beings or as consumers? for the capitalist, does it matter whether the consumer/employee/employer is a person as opposed to a highly sophisticated black box with the ability to buy/sell/produce things?
i submit that
(a) in practice, any benefits to others from viewing them as means to ones own enrichment is a side effect, and there are often also negative consequences for the buyer. for example, the seller-of-stuff both figures out what people already want and convinces them to want things they otherwise would not. furthermore, sometimes the products have individual and social costs of which the consumers may or may not be aware (including by rational ignorance).
(b) in theory (in terms of a virtue ethic or personal middos or anything like that), viewing others as means to ones own enrichment is really very selfish, and the more involved on gets in the details of others’ desires and lives while still viewing them this way, the worse it is.
my two cents.
Miriam – So if I understand correctly, the hidden motivations matter more than the results?
(1) No. The results of selling people what they want to buy are not the same as the results of thinking about how to best use ones capacities to help others.
[Even with the (in my view unjustified) assumption that it always benefits people to sell them what they want to buy, what if the person whom you could benefit the most doesn’t have money to pay?]
I conceded, and continue to concede, that being a capitalist is frequently better for others than just sitting in a cave, but is that your standard?
(2) Yes. “Selfish” and “selfless” are character traits, not just behaviors. Even assuming the results are good for others (which I contest in #1), seling people what they want to buy because that’s how to make money does not display the character trait of “selflessness.”