The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it. —Mother Teresa
Was Mother Teresa a self-interested individual? Was it the pursuit of personal happiness that led her to Calcutta and to the building of one of history’s great charitable organizations (Missionaries of Charity)? Would she have found contentment working her way up from account rep to CEO of Apple?
Was Steve Jobs a self-interested individual? Was it the pursuit of personal happiness that led him to build one of history’s great enterprises? Would he have found contentment as a volunteer for the Peace Corps?
Let’s compare how a passionate progressive and a free market enthusiast might assess the lives of these two remarkable individuals. Both would indeed sing the praises of Mother Teresa. And I suspect both would cheerfully (more so the capitalist) dub Steve Jobs a true benefactor to society. But if asked which of the two has made the greatest contribution to the world, well, let’s just say there’d be no meeting of the minds.
For the progressive there’s no contest—Mother Teresa was a saint in the truest sense of the word. The mere suggestion that a profit-seeking capitalist’s societal contribution is somehow superior to hers is an utter insult to humanity. Of course to the capitalist—the global impact of the genius of Steve Jobs is utterly incomparable.
I say the point is entirely mute, for—within the bounds of the laws of their country—people possess the right to pursue happiness, without regard to whether, or in what manner, their actions benefit society. And this freedom is truly what has made America a great nation—the point made in this excerpt from my July 2012 essay When the Human Spirit Meets With Liberty:
“What do you suppose was chiefly on the minds of our ancestors as they braved the seas to come to America? Did they come with hopes of building a “great society” (per Lyndon Johnson and so many of today’s “progressives”)? A society where all manner of men, regardless of their output, would be delivered an equal share of some national pie? Indeed, would they have risked their lives only to have the fruits of their sacrifice divvied up amongst the masses?
And what do you suppose explains the incomparable advancement of the human condition that has occurred on these shores during the life of this very young country? It’s the momentum from our nation’s genesis. It’s what happens when the human spirit meets with liberty. Our wealth is not the result of one collective ideal. It is the result of millions of individuals pursuing their own separate interests.”
This debate itself is a most dangerous one—for it demands judgment—and judgments made at high enough levels can become law. Which, I’m afraid, is the very aim of today’s progressive: He would change the world from the top down. He would have government narrow the chasm separating the rich and the poor—institutionalizing, and thus imposing, [his view of] the spirit of Mother Teresa onto the country. He would take more from those of means and distribute to the down-trodden. The fact that there’s utterly no empirical economic justification for his plan poses no deterrent. To him “social justice” trumps all.
The true free market capitalist would change government as well. But rather than expanding its reach, he’d rein it in. He’s after freedom—the freedom to operate in the competitive world market. He knows that the lesser the constraints, the more creative he’ll be, the more value he’ll bring to his customers and, thus, the more successful will be his endeavors. Here’s the last paragraph of the above-referenced essay:
“I pursue my separate interests when I assist you in pursuing yours. If I make pizza for a living, it is in my best interest to sell you the best tasting pie I can profitably produce. Competition with other establishments keeps me forever striving to be the best. If you like my pizza, it is in your best interest to tell all your friends so that I remain in business. Apply this simple logic to every profession (save for politics) and you understand how, as Adam Smith put it two-plus centuries ago in The Wealth of Nations, the freedom to pursue one’s own objectives promotes necessarily “an end” that is “most advantageous to society””
The world will always have its blessed Mother Teresa’s—and they’ll forever inspire us in the most beautiful sense. But will the world always have its Steve Jobs’s? Today’s progressive should surely hope so. For, in the words of Milton Friedman:
“The record of history is absolutely crystal clear—that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.”
And that great Smithian economist Mother Teresa:
“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”