All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1971

How to Be a Benefactor


The world’s woes may have been greater and more numerous in 1850 than now. But, if they were, my grandfather as a young man was unaware of them. There were no radios, TVs, or telephones. Iso­lated in backwoods country, he had no newspaper, not even a magazine. All the troubles of man­kind, so far as he knew, were those which fell within a distance he could walk or ride horseback; and they were minor problems, few and far between. In brief, grandfather had no social prob­lems except grandfather-size ones.

But today! There is hardly a disaster or a social mess on the face of the earth that isn’t imme­diately dinned into our ears or emblazoned in glaring headlines. News! And unless one is instinc­tively or rationally immune to this calamity barrage, he will incline toward the untenable belief that every ill of mankind is his prob­lem. Thus misled, he is an easy victim of the fallacious notion that the solution of all of these is his “social responsibility.”

True, each of us is at once a social and an individualistic being and, therefore, each does in fact have a social responsibility. How­ever, we should know what that responsibility is, and what it is not, else we will work against rather than in harmony with our fellow men.

The grandfather-size problem, as it turns out, is about the maxi­mum size any of us is able to cope with. When we get it into our heads that other people’s problems are our responsibility to solve, we “rise” to a level of utter incompetence. However good our intentions, our meddling makes matters worse rather than better.

To illustrate: I am a writer of sorts. It must be obvious to you, whoever you are, that I cannot solve your problems. Elect me to Congress and I remain as I am, my competence not improved one whit by reason of this change in occupation. Nor will it upgrade my competence to place me in the highest political office in the land, or to make me the head of A.T. & T.!

Business to the Whipping Post

Before considering how we can become true benefactors, that is, how we can soundly discharge our social responsibilities, let’s reflect on the mischief done in the belief that social responsibility requires everybody to solve everybody else’s problems.

For example, take business firms, especially those with the most customers, workers, and in­vestors. They are today’s “whipping boys.” Such firms are picked on by politicians, muckrakers, and those millions who can be sold any nonsense—if it is repeated often enough. Pied Pipers with enormous followings are everlast­ingly insisting that these corpo­rations assume their “social re­sponsibility,” such as training and hiring the so-called hard core un­employed.

So beset are many executives with these widespread collectivis­tic notions that they tend to neg­lect their proper functions of hir­ing the most competent personnel, turning out better products at lower prices, and making larger profits; they concentrate instead on preserving the corporate im­age. These outpourings draw busi­nessmen into a popularity contest for which they have no compe­tence, and cause them to de-em­phasize their skills in production and exchange, the skills that brought them to the top. Instead of serving as spokesmen for free entry and competition and how the market economy best serves everyone, they drop into a defen­sive role. They shift from portray­ing what is true to denouncing what is not true. Or they may suc­cumb altogether to these unreal­istic notions, in which event they apologize for profits and become parties to the growing collec­tivism.

This is a mischievous trend. If continued, it will prove disastrous not only to investors and workers but to the very customers many of whom are doing the condemning. When the emphasis is on the im­age rather than the performance, not only will the performance de­teriorate but so will the image. And everyone involved must bear a share of the inevitable failure.

Public policy, it seems to me, should be geared to consumer in­terest—that’s all of us. And as a consumer, I cringe when business executives behave as if theirs is first and foremost—or, even sec­ondarily—the job of looking out for pockets of poverty or the level of employment or the general wel­fare or any other so-called social goal. These men will serve us best in every way—including allevia­tion of our poverty and so on—when they stick to their own knit­ting!

Born a shoemaker, stay a shoe­maker was, by and large, the lot of the masses until the idea of opening the market to competition was recently discovered—about seven generations ago. What a revolution that brought about! Open opportunity for masses of people and the most successful war on poverty in the history of man­kind!

Adam Smith and J. S. Mill

John Stuart Mill, gifted with in­sight, was among the numerous men to grasp the pursuit of self-interest as an efficacious way of life:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to ob­tain it.

Earlier, Adam Smith had ob­served that:

…by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, [the individual ] in­tends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently pro­motes that of the society more ef­fectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation….

If “to trade for the public good” is at best an affectation, one must then conclude that he should trade for his own good, which is to say that each of us should ob­serve the rules and pursue his own self-interest. Thus will he best serve others and fulfill his social responsibility. What a switch from current thinking! But events of the past 200 years, if I read them aright, confirm this view—absolutely!

There is in this thesis, how­ever, a presupposition that an in­dividual knows what is to his best interest. There’s the rub; few have this knowledge; no one has it perfectly.

This presupposition may ex­plain why the brilliant and cau­tious Adam Smith inserted that word “frequently” into his fa­mous paragraph. Every now and then—frequently—there are individuals who more or less intelli­gently perceive their self-interest; and in these cases the ardent pur­suit of that interest promotes the interests of society—contributes to the public good.

The pursuit of self-interest as one’s objective is not widely ap­plauded. Generally, such action is associated with greed, avarice, selfishness. Low-brows! This only demonstrates the extent of the confusion.

Motivation and Interpretation

Self-interest is the motivator of human action. Regardless of pre­tensions to the contrary, a com­munist is as much motivated by self-interest as am I. In this sense, everyone is self-centered; self-interest is the ultimate given. And to be purely selfless is to be dead.

There are two main variables in this matter. The first relates to the motivating power of self-interest. In some people it is a feeble force, often too low to be recognized. Such people sometimes think of themselves as selfless, and they nearly are. In others, self-interest is a powerful motivator of action.

The second variable is the one at issue; it has to do with how intelligently self-interest is inter­preted. For instance, the thief thinks of his interest as best served by stealing from others. This is an interpretation so nar­row and antisocial that the more it is pursued, the more is the pub­lic good subverted. There are, on the other hand, those who so in­telligently interpret their self-in­terest that they would never think of trying to pursue their own good by depriving others of the same right, or in any way im­peding the efforts of others to ob­tain their own good.

What this amounts to in the final analysis is serving or ob­serving the self-interest of others in order to best serve one’s self. This is an interpretation so in­telligent that the more it is pur­sued, the more is the public good served. To repeat, it is the fre­quent appearance of these en­lightened individuals that led Adam Smith to an obscure truth: “… he [man in pursuit of his own interest] frequently promotes that of the society more effectu­ally than when he really intends to promote it.”

The ardent pursuit of self-inter­est is the way to social felicity or the public good, presuming that individuals are not allowed (by government) or do not allow themselves to act at cross pur­poses with the freedom of others, thereby damaging their own in­terests. To my way of thinking, this is the way; and the more powerfully the individual is moti­vated to pursue his enlightened interests, the better. If this is the right way, then we should not lightly abandon it simply because we find only a few among us who are intelligent interpreters of self-interest. Stick to the right way and concentrate on increas­ing an enlightened self-interest. This is the only procedure that makes sense.

Beware the Selfless

Consider the alternative. Sup­pose each individual were to abandon his own interests when­ever he observes others misinter­preting theirs.

What are some of these misin­terpretations of self-interest? All will agree that theft is wrong. But of the millions who wouldn’t per­sonally steal from any other, what about those who will, without the slightest qualm, get the govern­ment to feather their own nests at the expense of others? What, really, is the difference? Were all to do this, all would perish. If this isn’t a mistake, pray tell, what is! The list, of course, is long and must include every individual who does unto others that which he would not have them do unto him.¹

And to be included, also, are the muckraking critics of producers who are trying their best to out­do competitors, to profit by best serving consumers. To make “whipping boys” out of those who serve us most efficiently is to dis­play an ignorance of our own in­terests.

What, then, is the alternative to the pursuit of self-interest? It is that these people who do not even know their own interests should pursue your and my good—the public weal! This is to com­pound ignorance in society. For, surely, an individual who does not know his own interest cannot re­motely know mine, let alone the countless interests of millions.

Social Responsibility

Now to the final question: How best can I become a benefactor to mankind? By assuming my social responsibility. Of what does this consist? There are three steps.

Number one is to do all in my power not to interfere with the business of others.

The danger of minding other peo­ple’s business is twofold. First, there is the danger that a man may leave his business unattended to; and, second, there is the danger of an impertinent interference with another’s affairs. The “friends of humanity” almost al­ways run into both dangers.

Number two is to mind my own business.

Every man and woman in society has one big duty. That is, to take care of his or her own self. This is a social duty. For, fortunately, the matter stands so that the duty of making the best of one’s self individually is not a separate thing from the duty of filling one’s place in society, but the two are one, and the latter is accomplished when the former is done.2

Number three is implicit in minding my own business: prac­ticing, as best I can, the difficult and sensitive Judeo-Christian philosophy of charity.³

Minding one’s own business is the doctrine of liberty. Admit­tedly, this has no glamour for the “friends of humanity,” the social architects, the one’s who would mind other people’s business. To rule out their masterminding of others is to deny their peculiar pursuit of happiness.

Minding one’s own business, on the other hand, serves self by serving others and is a task of a size to fit the individual—big or little. This can be life’s most fas­cinating venture—self-interest in its most intelligent conception, benefaction at its very best.

For an instructive and inspirational book on this subject, see Magnificent Ob­session, a novel by Lloyd Douglas.

 

***

A Code for Survival

Everyone is familiar with the intense struggle for existence that is carried on among the trees of a forest. It is asserted that the struggle is so intense, and the issue of life and death so sharply drawn among the young pines of a thicket, that the cutting of an inch from the top of one of them will doom it to ultimate extinction….

Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, the issue of life and death is seldom so clearly and sharply drawn among human beings as it is among trees, but in the long run the results appear to be much the same. If that be true, it follows that the religion which best enables men to conform to the laws of the Universe (God’s laws) and to survive in life’s struggle, will eventually be left in possession of the world.

THOMAS NIXON CARVER, The Religion Worth Having

Foot Notes

1 See my Readiness Is All, a pamphlet. Copy on request.

2 This and the previous quote from the chapter, “On Minding One’s Own Busi­ness,” in What Social Classes Owe To Each Other by William Graham Sumner.

3 See “What Shall It Profit a Man?” in my Deeper Than You Think (Irving‑ton-on-Hudson, N. Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1967) pp. 108­1¹7.

For an instructive and inspirational book on this subject, see Magnificent Ob­session, a novel by Lloyd Douglas.


  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”