On the dedication page of Ron Paul’s The Revolution: A Manifesto, we find
"To my supporters: I have never been more humbled
and honored than by your selfless devotion to freedom and the
The modifier “selfless” is intended as a
moral tribute. Imagine instead if he had written “selfish.” Would
that kill the Paul freedom movement? Certainly there would be many who would
question his choice of words, though most would probably shrug it off as an
But if he had written “selfish” quite
intentionally, how many people would regard that as a moral tribute?
What are the facts? Can we really say that people who
fight for freedom are acting in self-denial? Wouldn’t freedom be an
infinitely better condition to live under than the controlled society we now
have or the totalitarian slave state we’re edging towards? And if this
is true, wouldn’t it be correct to say Paul’s supporters act in
their conscientious self-interest, and therefore their support should be
So why didn’t he use that word?
As authors Yaron Brook and
Don Watkins argue in their stimulating book, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn
Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, it is the widespread
inability to affirm the self that accounts for the continuing decline of
freedom. And since political freedom implies economic freedom, traditional
selfless morality becomes capitalism’s greatest enemy, as they discuss
The Triumph of Greed?
When the financial crisis arrived in 2007-2008,
capitalism’s enemies had no trouble spotting who they believed were the
culprits: greedy businessmen and speculators. Once again, the government had
trusted them with freedom, and once again their insatiable greed brought the
economy to its knees. But Brook and Watkins point out what should be obvious,
that freedom in economic affairs had been increasingly restricted for
[B]ecause the conventional view of selfishness remained entrenched, it was not the “public servants”
in Washington who took the blame . . . .
The true lesson of
the financial crisis is exactly the opposite of what the pundits concluded.
The conventional view is that the free market failed. In fact, it was the unfree market that failed, and it is more freedom that is
the solution. [p. 58]
As they tell us later in discussing soaring health care
accident that we don’t have a computer crisis, or a hair salon crisis, or
a veterinary crisis. Nor is it an accident that we did have a housing and
financial crisis. Along with housing and finance, medicine is one of the most
regulated industries in the United States . . . [p. 194; emphasis added]
But wait--Bernie Madoff was selfish, was he not? He was
trusted and left free to gain as much money as he could, which for him meant
cheating his clients through a fantastic Ponzi scheme. Could it not be argued
that the combination of freedom and selfishness cost his clients billions?
One of his clients, a French aristocrat named Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, was so
heavily invested he was found dead of an apparent suicide after Madofff was arrested for fraud. Ask almost anyone to name
an example of a selfish person and Madoff becomes a prime candidate.
“To be selfish is to be like Madoff,” the authors write,
“to screw anyone, even family and friends, in order to get more, more,
more for me, me, me. Madoff is just the latest
poster boy for the evil of selfishness.” [p. 63]
But there’s a problem with this portrayal of
selfishness--it includes people who don’t swindle others to get ahead.
It includes people who make a lot of money by producing goods that others
value. It includes people like Steve Jobs, “who was routinely derided as
selfish” and was condemned for focusing on profit rather than
philanthropy. A Wired magazine commentary in 2006
described him as “nothing more than a greedy capitalist who’s
amassed an obscene fortune. It’s shameful,” adding that “he
skates away from the responsibilities that come with great wealth and
Brook and Watkins reject this analysis:
Does it really
make sense to equate producers like Jobs with criminals like Madoff--to
accuse them of the same dark motive and the same moral crime (in spirit, if
not in scale)? One creates wealth; the other steals it. One thrives by
trading with other people; the other destroys the lives of everyone he
touches. One works incredibly hard to build a product or company he can be
proud of; the other spends his time trying to cover up the fact that he has
nothing to be proud of. [p. 65]
Anyone who takes the time to look at how businesses
actually succeed will find, in most cases,
exploitation but mutually beneficial production and trade; an Apple economy,
not a Madoff economy. [p. 67]
This runs counter to the conventional notion of trade
as a zero-sum (win/lose) game. Yesterday I bought groceries at a local
supermarket. If trade is a zero-sum game, then one of us lost. I came home
with the groceries I wanted, and the supermarket had the money it wanted--a
win/win exchange. What we each gave up in trade, we gave up voluntarily. I
didn’t have to settle on that supermarket; I could have gone elsewhere.
No one forces the supermarket to stay in business; if it can’t make a
profit, it will close. Right now it’s mutually beneficial for me to
shop there and for the store to stay open. In this sense, each of us was pursuing
his rational self-interest, what Ayn Rand defined
as selfish. The store doesn’t sell groceries under cost as a matter of
charity, nor do I shop there to do it a favor.
Should the supermarket do more than offer goods I want
at prices I can afford? Should it be “skating” toward other goals
that certain others regard as its “social responsibilities”?
To get them to swallow the idea that it’s their
duty to serve and sacrifice, the altruistic push for corporate “social
responsibility” has taught businessmen that their choice is either some
monomaniacal focus on the “bottom line”--one that involves
ignoring many of the factors that determine a company’s bottom line--or
a mawkish pursuit of a “service” agenda . . . .
Any company that
achieves productive success [such as my local supermarket or Apple] should
self-confidently reject calls to “give back.” It created
wealth--it has nothing to atone for.
As the authors conclude, “the path to profits is
paved in principle,” not chicanery or crime--something the skaters of
this world will likely never understand.
The Morality of Sacrifice vs. the Morality of Rights
The authors note that the “dictatorial mentality
that seeks power over others does not preach selfishness but
self-sacrifice.” As a character in The Fountainhead pointed out,
sacrifice implies that someone will be collecting the sacrificial offerings.
The morality of sacrifice, of exploiter and exploited, underlies Big
Free Market Revolution offers many
refreshing insights on long-standing issues. Following Rand, for instance, it
tells us that “a right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a
man’s freedom of action in a social context,” then by way of
elaboration says, “A society of rights is one in which you are as free
as you would be alone on an island.”
Think of Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” the
authors suggest--he had no “right” to a survival manual even
though he needed one, no “right” to dental care, no
“right” to matches for starting a fire. His only right was the
freedom to figure out all those things for himself.
The notion of “a hungry man is not free” didn’t go over
well on the uninhabited island. He either learned to catch crabs or starved.
He even had to solve the problem of companionship on his own, by drawing a
face on a volleyball and engaging in
“conversation.” Unfortunately for the purveyors of sacrifice,
there was no one around that the Hanks character could serve, other than himself. If he wanted to live, he had to be selfish, he had to make a profit, in the best sense of
As the authors note, “a society of rights is one
that removes coercion from human affairs.” [p. 131] Modern
“rights” are claims to certain outcomes, not freedom of action.
What makes modern rights possible is the state, which forces some people to
provide for others. “Rights” in the modern sense increase
coercion rather than remove it. The result is bigger, more expensive, more
What About the Workers?
It’s frequently asserted that workers need
protection from the ravenous clutches of big business and therefore
beneficent coercion on government’s part is required. Notwithstanding
the moral implications of this claim, how does this square with the facts?
Brook and Watkins tell us that real wages doubled between 1860 and 1890, a
period in which the population was exploding. Not only were workers making
more, they were working less, with the average annual hours worked dropping
from 3,069 in 1870 to 2,632 by 1913. Because we didn’t have a central
bank inflating the money supply and thereby imposing an unseen tax on dollar
holders, the cost of living was going down. Gently falling prices were the
In this century, by contrast, real median household
income has been stagnant since 1968, due to
policy-induced inflation (cheaper dollars) and the cost of government
(taxes). And it takes twice as many people (husband and wife both working) to
maintain that stagnation today.
The Invisible Austrians
My one serious complaint with Free Market Revolution
is the authors’ claim that:
Perhaps the most
notable defense of capitalism in recent years is Arthur Brooks’s
The Battle, a book that has received endorsements and accolades from
political heavyweights, from Paul Ryan to Newt Gingrich to Karl Rove . . . .
But for all its
virtues, The Battle suffers from two major problems: It doesn’t
actually advocate capitalism, and it cannot defend the pursuit of happiness.
First, the political heavyweights the authors name are
neoconservatives, who are as far-removed from free markets as the political
left. It’s hardly surprising they would endorse a book that speaks in
“vague generalities” about liberty and limited government, and
that “never explains what capitalism is.” [p. 212] No politician
today became a heavyweight by supporting limited government, free markets,
and sound money, though of course neocons are obliged to pay lip service to
the foregoing to keep their conservative credentials.
More important than this, however, is the absence of
any mention of the rise of the Austrian school of economics in recent years,
especially since 2007. What about Tom Woods’ books--Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market
Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse,
The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History,
Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming
Fiscal Collapse, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the
21st Century--not to mention his Liberty
Classroom, which purports to teach “real history and
economics” while you’re driving your car? We could add books by
Thomas DiLorenzo (How Capitalism Saved America, Hamilton’s Curse), Robert Higgs (Delusions of Power, Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free
Society), Robert P. Murphy (Lessons for the Young Economist, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great
Depression and the New Deal, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism),
Peter Schiff (The Real Crash: America's Coming Bankruptcy---How to
Save Yourself and Your Country, How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes)
and yours truly (The Flight of the Barbarous Relic, The Jolly Roger Dollar: An Introduction to Monetary
Piracy) to the mix as well. Why is there no mention of the proliferation
of free market analysis at Mises.org or of the Mises Academy that offers online studies in
economics, political economy, history, and even a course on Atlas Shrugged?
And of course Ron Paul, about whom the writers are silent, has become
capitalism’s champion in recent years, especially among young people
and political activists. Could it be that mentioning the
Austrians--especially Ron Paul--is forbidden because of their foreign policy of peace?
perhaps the authors can explain in a revised edition how maintaining a
military empire worldwide and invading countries without provocation are
compatible with free markets and the Nonaggression Axiom.
cause of their
foreign policy of peace?
If so, perhaps the authors can explain in a
revised edition how maintaining a military empire worldwide and invading
countries without provocation are compatible with free markets and the