This past Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending the most recent forum hosted by the West Liberty Economics Club. This organization has been doing a fantastic service for Wheeling, and the local public in general - bringing in nationally-recognized speakers from all across the country, and hosting discussions on ideas that our nation has long forgotten. The last guest speaker was Mr. Yaron Brook, the executive director from the Ayn Rand Institute. While I enjoyed his talk, I hold some major fundamental disagreements with the philosophy he espoused - and I felt compelled to lay these differences out.
Mr. Brook advocates for the basic economic argument of free markets, something in which I wholeheartedly agree with. My disagreement, though, lies with the logic he takes to reach his conclusion - one which I believe is very flawed and will not achieve the ends in which it seeks. The "Ayn Rand" philosophy that Mr. Brook promotes is that capitalism is morally virtuous because it is "selfish" in nature. Chasing profits is selfish, but since this profit-chasing exercise leads to prosperity, then this characteristic of "selfishness" must be a virtue. Our whole moral code as a society - one which typically states that the individual who is selfless, not selfish, is the virtuous man - must unfortunately, then, be utterly wrong. Mr. Brook then concludes that since government controls, taxation, regulations, and the debasement of the currency have escalated over the years, it is because we have chosen the wrong "quality" to worship. In order to revert back to the concept of free markets, we must reverse what we as a people revere. We must substitute selfishness for selflessness. We must admire those who only care for themselves. So goes Mr. Brook's argument.
This line of thinking needs to be rejected. Not only on its logical approach, but on its moral face as well. While Ayn Rand's novels are still a great read, Ayn Rand's underlying philosophy - that selfishness is a virtue - is highly flawed, as it is not a virtue at all to be selfish. And replacing our moral code with this backwards reasoning will not increase "capitalism," it will actually lead to less of it. It will lead to more "crony-capitalism," or, in essence, more central economic planning by government. Mr. Brook makes one major, critical error in his logic. He assumes that a system of free markets is inherently built around "selfishness." But this is not the innate characteristic at all of the market economy. What is truly its most defining element is respect - a real virtue opposed to selfish behavior.
To explain further, let us examine first what virtue is and where it comes from. Certainly, religion has played a most important role in American culture and shaping the understanding of virtue. I'm a Catholic, a Christian - not the best one, but I have my little girl at mass on Sunday - and the Christian life teaches quite the opposite of Mr. Brook's philosophy. Love thy neighbor as yourself. Respect others, have compassion for the poor, take care of the needy. Turn the other cheek. Forgive others. And dare I say it in today's world, love your enemies. All of these values are rooted not in selfishness, but putting one's self last. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this selflessness - something I learned during my time in the military - "Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends." At first glance then, it may seem that free markets cannot be reconciled with these predominant Christian principles of old - of putting others before yourself.
This assumption - one I believe Mr. Brook makes - is entirely false. I have never considered these Christian principles to be opposed to the economic order of free markets. In fact, they are harmonious - free markets and Christianity (as well as the other major religions of the world) are both completely symbiotic and in-line together.
For these compassionate teachings are rooted in respect. Free markets then, are nothing more than the respect for another's life and property. "I will not steal from you" is not only in line with nearly every religious culture today, but also in line with a more natural rule of law. Free markets - or the market economy - are the root of civilization. The exchange of goods and services in this voluntary way is what separates us from the animals. We can use logic and reason to peacefully cooperate back and forth. But it all rests on respect and reverence for another's private property. Over time, this evolution of thought has been embedded into our culture of what is virtuous and what is not. When Mr. Brook says that we need to embrace the virtue of "being selfish," he is turning back time thousands of years, when men would view other men as competition for scarce resources, like food or shelter. Tribal wars reigned supreme, as property rights were less recognized, and the division of labor - or working together in voluntary complex exchange -was still more remote. Selfishness breeds violence, not a more peaceful world through economic freedom and trade.
In addition, any animal can be selfish. All of them are. This then, cannot be considered virtue, for virtue is typically something admired, something to aspire to. Selfishness is common, for we are all born selfish. Virtue is also learned. This makes it less common, for not everyone learns it. Virtue then must have at least one defining characteristic - to be considered a virtue, the quality must be "un-animal" like. It must be aspired to, worked at. And it must be hard to accomplish. It's not too hard to be selfish. Furthermore, the market economy is not "of the animals." It is the defining nature of human civilization.
In addition, it is the rampant escalation of selfishness that has led to larger and larger government, and the erosion of this "un-animal" like market economy. This is because the market economy promotes respect, and the restraint of more animal-like instincts like stealing, looting, or plundering one another. The market economy is nothing more than adding value to one's neighbor. By doing this, free markets promote another long-held virtue - a strong work ethic. The pattern that has taken place - the increase in government, and the decrease in the market economy - has occurred precisely because the animal-like instincts of selfishness and power have overtaken the restraint of these same instincts that the market economy tries to impose.
Selfishness typically leads to a higher time preference. When an individual prefers something now, at the present moment, at this instant, fewer savings and less production becomes the norm. The growth of savings is what makes the growth of production possible - and new jobs, and higher income typically results. Selfishness though breeds an increase in present consumption. And as selfishness grows, individuals look for "new" ways to consume.
There is perhaps no better way to consume present resources than by growing government. As this entity grows, the moral character of the people typically becomes degraded. Animal-like instincts are accepted again in society. Some may even try to say that these instincts are virtuous. We certainly need to relearn the principles of free markets. They have become eroded by government deficit spending, the fraudulent practice of "money-printing," and the regulation of private property. But we do not need new values. We simply must rediscover our old ones.
McGeehan is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He served in the House of Delegates from 2008-2010 and is currently the chairman of the Republican Party in Hancock County. He is employed by Frontier Communications in Wheeling, and resides in Chester.