Mr. Fairless is Chairman of the Executive Advisory Committee, United States Steel Corporation.
Ours would indeed be a sorry world if self-interest did not activate individuals to serve one another.
As far as I know, there are only two basic motivations that cause you and me and other people to serve our neighbors voluntarily and regularly. One, of course, is the moral code found in the teachings of our Judeo-Christian religion. We believe it is our moral duty to help our fellow men who are in need—regardless of race or creed or nationality, and regardless of whether or not they can pay for it.
The other motivation that causes us to serve our fellow men is the desire to get something in return from them.
It is sometimes said that when service is motivated by charity and love, it is good; but that when the motivation is materialistic, it is bad. Well, I’m going to challenge the second part of that concept. I’m going to explore the possibility that the desire to earn a profit may cause us to serve more people—more effectively—than does our desire to be charitable.
Of course, I want it clearly understood that the idea of serving others with no expectation of return—that is, true charity is a wonderful practice, and I wish we had more of it. I have the greatest admiration and respect for those dedicated persons who, because of love of God and man, devote their lives to helping others. Without those saintly persons among us, this world would be a rather dull and uninspiring place to live—regardless of the amount of material things we might possess.
But it is obvious that only a comparative few of us can devote our entire lives to serving others with no possibility of any material return. If all of us tried it, the production of material goods and services would soon cease completely. Soon there just wouldn’t be anything to share with others.
I think that the following question by a little boy to his Sunday school teacher goes straight to the heart of this matter. He asked: “If the reason for our being on Earth is to help others, what reason do the others have for being here?” Since the little boy in that story never did get an answer to his question, I’ll try to answer it right now.
It’s true that we are here to help others. But it’s equally true that the others are here to help us, too. It’s just that simple; we’re here to understand and love our Creator, to respect our fellow men who are all equal under God, and to serve and help each other. In that way, all of us can live in peace with each other and have more of the things we want, whatever they may be.
Stop and think with me for a moment as to what would happen to you—or to me or anyone else—if no one helped us in any way.
I assure you that if no one helped me, my standard of living would soon plummet to near zero. Literally, if other people refused to share their talents and skills with me, I would soon perish. I’m just not capable of being my own doctor, making my own clothing, and growing my own food. Even though I’m an engineer, I still can’t generate my own electricity, build my own house, and do the ten-thousand-and-one other things that make life both possible and pleasant.
If for no other reason, self-interest alone would cause me to offer my poor talents in the service of other people in order to persuade them to help me. For example, how would I manage without the service of the hundreds-of-thousands of persons who maintain and operate our railroads and other forms of modern transportation? Why would anyone go to the trouble of building a railroad for me and others to use?
There must be some excellent reason that causes the owners and operators of the railroads to spend all that time and effort to serve us. Is their motivation charity? Do they do it strictly because they love us? No, I think not.
As near as I can figure it, they do it because we’ve got something they want. And the only way they can get it from us legitimately and honestly is to serve us by offering us something we need and want in return. Actually, their primary motivation is profit. After the trade, they hope to have more of what they want than they had before the trade.
And the persons with whom they do the trading also operate on exactly the same basis. The most wonderful thing about this mutual service that is motivated by self-interest is that everyone profits from it.
Since ours is a money economy, we usually exchange currency instead of the actual products of our talents and skills. But what those railroad men really want are goods and services produced by others.
They want medical care from the doctors who ride in comfort in their safe and speedy trains. They want food from the farmers and grocers who patronize them. From the shoemakers, they want shoes. From the movie kings and queens, they want entertainment. From the barbers, they want haircuts. And so on through the thousands of other goods and services the railroad owners and employees want and need.
From the hundreds-of-thousands of owners and employees of United States Steel, they want steel to make rails and locomotives. In practice, of course, we don’t actually exchange steel for train rides; we find it more convenient to use money that can be converted easily into the desired goods and services.
Because of this self-interest or profit motive, the railroad owners and operators are constantly striving to serve you and me better. They know that if you and I don’t like their service, then we won’t serve them in turn by offering to trade the products of our own specialized talents and skills.
As long as coercion and violence are forbidden and suppressed by government—as long as peaceful competition is permitted and encouraged—then the profit motive of self-interest will cause us to devote much time and effort to devising ways and means to serve our fellow men.
Again, I don’t mean to imply that the owners and employees of the railroads aren’t charitable. Of course they are. Like the rest of us, they also contribute their full share to those unfortunate persons among us who can’t produce enough to buy the necessities they need. But the charitable part of their service is probably only a tiny fraction of their total services. Of necessity, the owners and employees of the railroads mostly serve persons whom they expect to serve them in turn.
That attitude and motivation is good, not bad. It is the motivation that causes the production of the greatest amount of products and services for the greatest number of people. It is the basis of our democratic way of life, and it is in perfect harmony with our Judeo-Christian religion.
Unfortunately, there are many sincere persons among us who seem to think that there’s something immoral about making a profit. Whether those misguided persons know it or not, they are thereby discouraging the production of food and shelter for the poorest people who need them most.
That startling fact can be seen most clearly and dramatically by comparing the development of nations where the profit motive is permitted to operate freely, and the development of nations where the profit motive is restricted or entirely illegal. Even without examining them, I am confident you would have no difficulty in guessing which of those nations would show the greatest amount of mutual service, the lowest degree of poverty, and the highest standard of living.
For example, take Venezuela—a country in which our company does considerable business, and which I have visited several times. It is one of the many nations that encourage people to serve each other in the hope of making a profit from their services. The Venezuelan people have something we want, and the American people have something they want. Self-interest causes us to serve each other by exchanging our talents, skills, and resources.
The people of both countries have profited by this exchange. In Venezuela, the result has been a marked rise in education, medical service, roads, housing, food, clothing, and the thousands of other material facilities and services that enable the people to live fuller, better, and longer lives.
Because of this profit-inspired increase in material goods and services in Venezuela, there has also been an increase in the other type of service—that is, charitable service motivated by love of God and man, with no thought of profit. You See, however much you might want to help your needy neighbor, it is rather difficult to do so when you don’t have anything yourself. Only the persons who have accumulated something beyond the requirements for their own subsistence are in a position to share with their less fortunate fellow men.
I don’t mean to imply that everything is perfect in Venezuela, the United States, or any other nation that uses the profit motive to increase production and service. Since we are dealing with human beings and since none of us is perfect—we naturally expect to find greedy persons, evil practices, and questionable laws in every nation. But compared to other nations that use various pretexts to suppress the profit motive, our peoples show a superior record in serving each other.
I’m not going to identify by name those other nations that discourage or suppress the profit motive. But I will attempt to identify them roughly by two general types, and you can easily do your own selecting.
First there are the nations that claim to operate on the principle laid down by Karl Marx over a hundred years ago. That principle is: “From each according to his abilities, and to each according to his needs.”
I’ll admit that there is a principle of service in that idea. But since it runs contrary to human nature, it just doesn’t persuade people voluntarily to provide many goods and services for each other.
The high producers soon tire of producing for other people who offer them little or nothing in return for their services. And the low producers who are promised a standard of living based on their needs instead of their efforts, tend to produce even less than they did before. When that happens, the police force must be called in to whip up production all along the line. That is a modern form of slavery, and it is not noted for high production. While it may produce an abundance for the few at the top, it does so at the expense of the great mass of the people.
Next are the nations that admit the validity of the profit motive but strangle its operations by means of private monopolies, government monopolies, and various other forms of restriction against competition at home and abroad.
The vast natural resources and the potential skills of the unfortunate people within those nations generally lie idle. The misguided leaders refuse to permit private capital and a competitive market to develop either the resources or the skills. Apparently they fear that someone might make a profit.
Because of this discrimination against the profit motivation of service, the people are discouraged from producing and exchanging products. As a result, they continue to remain close to a mere subsistence level. The leaders of those backward nations apparently operate on the fallacious idea that if one person makes a profit, then some other person must necessarily suffer a loss.
Sometimes I think that instead of merely continuing to pour gifts into these backward nations, we would serve them better by devoting more of our efforts to showing them how everyone makes a profit when people exchange goods and services with each other. We should explain to them that no person can make a legitimate and honest profit without serving or supplying other people with something they want and need—some-thing they consider to be an improvement over their former conditions.
I believe that a correct understanding and acceptance of that idea would do far more to feed and clothe the world’s people than would all the charity of which we are capable. Further, it would increase the self-respect of people who would no longer be objects of charity. They would become skilled and proud producers, and thereby earn the service of others by serving them in turn.
It is an unquestionable fact that the profit motive here in the United States has caused the greatest outpouring of goods and services the world has ever known. I believe I am safe in stating that, on the average, the poorest one-third of our people have more goods and services at their disposal than do the richest one-third of the people in most of Africa and Asia, in many areas of Europe, and in some sections of the Western Hemisphere. Yet, in spite of that record, many well-educated persons among us still attack the idea of profits and losses in a competitive economy.
Those misinformed and sometimes vicious critics baffle me. On the one hand, they claim that they want more material goods and services for all. Yet on the other hand, they condemn the motivation that has produced—and will continue to produce—the results they claim to desire.
Some of those critics may say that they don’t condemn the profit motive as such, but merely the fact that it permits a few persons to become wealthy. Thus, while those persons may oppose discrimination on the basis of race and creed, they consider it right and desirable to discriminate on the economic basis of wealth.
Apparently, those critics of wealth fail to realize that if profits are permitted, it naturally follows that some people will become wealthier than others. Actually, in a free market, the persons who become wealthy are those who serve their fellow men most efficiently by producing the goods and services the people most want. Thus when a person condemns wealth, he is merely using different words to condemn the profit motivation that causes the production of the maximum amount of goods and services for the greatest number of people.
In the second place, wealthy people don’t carry their assets around with them in the form of cash in a shoe box. Nor do they hide it under the mattress. Instead, their wealth is in the form of factories and machines and other capital equipment that provides jobs and is used to produce and distribute the goods and services we have in such abundance.
When I read some of the schemes for “sharing the wealth,” I am frequently curious as to how the authors would divide up a blast furnace among the poor people they profess to champion. I dislike questioning the motives of anyone, but I sometimes suspect that what those persons are really after is control of the wealth for themselves and their own particular groups.
I am well aware that a few wealthy persons have proved to be poor stewards of the resources in their care. But even so, I suspect that punitive laws against them would do a great deal of harm and little or no good.
There is a tried and true economic law that will soon dispose of the few misfits among us who have managed to earn or inherit great wealth. That economic principle has been summarized in this Americanism: “A fool and his money are soon parted.” If we attempt to hurry up the process by greasing the slide for those on the way down, we thereby injure the general welfare of all by discouraging those on the way up.
Anyway, we must acknowledge the fact that these few selfish mis-fits have come by their wealth legally. It’s their money, and I’m always reluctant to decree how other people should live and spend their legally acquired resources.
Also, in a free country such as ours, laws aren’t designed to apply to specific individuals but to all of us equally. If we attempt to legislate against the particular man who squanders his wealth on riotous living and idle and nonproductive pleasures, we also automatically legislate against the overwhelming majority of the persons who use their wealth wisely for the benefit of all.
Personally, I can see nothing wrong or evil about self-interest and serving others because you have to have them serve you in turn. Like anything else, the profit motive and the resulting accumulation of wealth can also be used for evil purposes by evil people. But by and large, the motivation of profit is primarily responsible for the vast amount of mutual service we find among us today. It is responsible for the constantly increasing standard of living in our country and the world in general. It is a moral method of encouraging all of us to serve each other better and effectively. 
From an address before the National Conference of Christians and Jews at Los Angeles, April 26, 1956.