The value that free-market economists and social libertarians attach to self-interest is often derided. Greed, they call it, or simplistic idealism; callous disregard for the poor, the oppressed, and the helpless. A recent appeal written from the heart cast this question into stark relief.
The topic was whether the world needs self-sacrificing heroes, and if so, how one can account for them within an ideology of libertarianism. In that ideology, each individual interacts voluntarily with others, based on their own interest. When someone commits an act of heroism, perhaps to the point of sacrificing their own life to save the life of someone else, how does this serve their own interests?
Many libertarians believe the most fundamental principle in politics and economics is the “consent axiom”. Do nothing to another without their consent. Use force only when the consent axiom has been broken. Every question can be reduced to the principle of voluntary consent.
It was in the context of this discussion on the value of heroism, conducted via email among South African libertarians, that Sasha Hitchner spoke up. Her message is worth publishing for its own sake. It is also worth a response. It is used with her kind permission:
Shuz and sox guys – we need heroes for whatever reason! We have become so wrapped up in defending our right to love the planet and all in and on it that we have to use words like “the genetic good”, to defend that “weakness” in us, justifying it, somehow, to make it okay to sacrifice your life for another.
I love Ayn Rand as much as the next Objectivist and Freedom as much as any member of this libertarian list – but heaven help us if we become cut off from all life in an attempt to be true to our self-interest philosophy and have to first check if it’s good for the gene pool before we do something.
I am sure all this thinking is good for something. I spend a good deal of time reading everything here – well at least the bits that I can understand – sometimes it’s just way beyond my scope of reference, and of no interest to me, because I haven’t a clue why we are talking about that stuff in the first place.
As far as I am concerned, I deal with life as I see it, what is, out there, messing up the grand plan of progress. I think we have to try to understand how black people see things because that is important in this country. It really doesn’t matter that they are, to our minds, screwing everything up. It matters how their “logic” works, what their sense of life is (since it dictates what it is that they love). They are the majority and have the power to negate every good thought we ever had.
Every father is a hero to his children, or a villain, as he chooses, and every mother would gladly die to save her offspring, her genes, if you like, but our love for our own determines how much of a hero we are, or a martyr. If we do not love one another, if we cannot reach down and help a man wounded in battle, no matter who he is, or why he’s there (mostly misguided in my opinion), then we are not even human and our genes are best left to die.
Our planet is in trouble. People are in trouble. Anger is growing, revolutions are bursting out at the seams in most countries. He with the biggest bombs, self interest protections, rules the day, interferes in every country, runs black ops, leaves soldiers out in the cold and does all sorts of bad things in the name of self interest. Self protection and self improvement. All the logic in the world, all the science, all the arts, all the manuscripts laying out reasons for everything that is and has happened is not going to save us. We need to understand first. Man, to prosper, first needs to know love, feel loved, learn what love is, learn how to express it, and then, then he can go out and create his universe. Money without Love is worthless. Millionaires kill themselves when they lose all their money sometimes, and I think that is because he has equated his worth, as a human, by the money he accumulated. he thinks without it he is nothing. If he loved himself, life, he would start again.
I was married to the most brilliant man I know. Seriously, brilliant. capable on many levels of excelling, and he did, but he has been an unsuccessful human being. Every time he got to the top of the pile in his field of endeavour, just before he conquered the hill, to be able to stand there with his flag of excellence, he stopped short. “What for?” He asked. He merely moved on to the next hill and nearly conquered that, and then stopped again. He has grown old under my wings, left me and others and the country, still looking for that next hill – and he still doesn’t know what love is. He was not taught it because his parents didn’t know it, and who else could teach him? All the women that have loved him are now banded together loosely in what we call the ex wives club, though we are not all wives, and we still love him, still stand in his life and hope that this time, with this new woman, he is going to find out what love is. I have little hope. He has passed his genes on to three daughters, all brilliant, all beautiful, all crippled because he didn’t step up and be the hero for them, and love them back the way they love him. He tries, really he does, but he doesn’t know how; and because he is so brilliant, he cannot stop long enough to pursue the hill that is marked love. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. He is single minded, self interested, brilliant at logic and mathematics and can seriously do anything he puts his mind to, but, at the bottom of it all is the question he can’t answer. What for? I tell him, for the love of it, but since he doesn’t know what love is, it makes no sense to him, brilliant as he is.
Then there are the children I spend a couple of days a week with. The coloured children who have dropped out of school because no one loves them enough to see to it, to press them into making the effort. They enjoy me because, sadly, not for my teaching of the language, or my life skills, or my ability to pray with them, and bring them clothes and sometimes a bit of cash, they love me because I walk into the class and hug them, rub their heads and tell them that they are perfectly and wonderfully made, and I love them. I have turned the naughtiest kid in the class to the most willing student. Love has dragged others in, curious to see if they too can be loved.
Our press spends all its time taking down our President on its pages, ripping Malema to pieces every chance they get, and they feel good about that. It’s just rude! They, the government, will take away their rights – freedom of the press, yes – because they don’t get that the government are trying their best and a little support would not go amiss here. And, what is that support? For God’s sake, let’s look at the good things that are taking place in this country and applaud them for that, instead of ripping everything to pieces because our President said he had a shower.
I don’t know any of you – what you do and where you fit into the puzzle of this country, but on these pages I see a lot of brilliance and it would worth something if it engaged the simple, the uneducated, the young bloods out there with grievances that go back years. We are obviously all privileged and well educated (Well not me – you guys. I am just a mommy with a matric and secretarial certificate from way back and I am dyslexic, and old.), but what is the value of all this group hugging and sharing of knowledge with each other – we don’t need it. Those out there need it.
I’m not clever enough to say this right, but the best I can do is ask you to get out there and look and love our people with all their warts and guide them to reason. Love them enough to… enough to answer that question: What for?
What must the little man in my classes learn English for when his chances of getting a job are minimal, when all he can hope for is garden work, labouring, at something, for almost nothing.
One kid said : “It’s okay. I have nothing. I have nothing to lose. If the world’s banks crash, it’s all the same to me.”
Drug dealers will give him a job, to be sure, and kill him for nothing.
Deal with that. Find something that works for that. That’s heroic. PLEASE! My heart breaks every day for the children of this country that I see meandering through the township streets with no hope of any future. There are more of them than of you. Your gene pool’s survival depends on their success.
I listen to the work my maid does in her community and how she, with almost nothing, goes about and feeds the stray dogs, takes in the children and gives them a slice of bread when she has some, and gratefully takes home my left overs to share with those who have nothing. She is a simple woman, with not much education, but she says every day: “Ons moet mekaar lief he. Dis al.” [“We need to love each other. That is all.”] If all of us put in that much effort to the communities that are struggling, what a difference we could make.
Anyway, sorry this is so long and so emotional, but damn it! Give love some space, for no reason at all, except that humans, dogs, cats, zebras and elephants need it. Even snails, and worms and fish. The sand. The sky.
If we don’t find our love pretty soon we are all going to die. You guys have got the words and the brains. I’m depending on you. You are all John Galts. If you leave for Atlantis, you will miss us all. We won’t miss you. We will be dead. Or as good as. Step up lads and ladies. If you are too busy, tell me how, I’ll do my best. I haven’t a clue what to do, and I dont have enough money to feed them all, or arms to hug them all.
This touching appeal raises some important points. One is that Sasha Hitchner is much, much more than “just a mommy with a matric”. In fact, she is a hero.
Another is that people who share an ideology often are so comfortable with their own assumptions that they forget how their arguments sound to others.
In my response to her, I wrote: “Your essay is not a reason to dismiss the philosophical truth and practical value of libertarian ideas. But it is reason to wake up and recognise that preaching to the choir has limited value beyond clarifying our own thinking. We need to start talking with everyone else. We need to explain that free markets principles do not reduce everything to rands and cents. That individual freedom does not deny emotion, or heroism, or charity, or love. On the contrary, it embraces and respects them. In fact, they are the very reason why subjective valuations among people differ, and why no central plan can ever satisfy individual wants and needs.”
A more bold example of this point was recently made by another member of that same mailing list. Last week, Hugh “Bob” Glenister addressed a dinner party about his decision to sponsor five trips to visit FreedomFest 2011 in Las Vegas. I am one of those people, selected by writing an essay on how best to promote the principles of individual liberty in South Africa.
He, like Hitchner, spoke passionately about loving others. The focus on the part of a self-described libertarian on the innate goodness of individuals may seem inconsistent, but it is not unusual. It underlies the moral virtue of allowing each individual the freedom to decide for themselves how to live their lives, and how their own interests are best served. Similarly, the notion of love is not obviously a libertarian idea. Yet it makes perfect sense.
Glenister spoke about how, in running a business, one lets each individual do what they’re good at. Some may be good at only one thing. Others at a hundred. Giving them the space to excel and grow, no matter what their level of skill or performance, is key to running a successful business, Glenister believes. He appealed to us – the essay competition entrants – to treat everyone in this manner, to love others unconditionally, and afford them the space and support they need to grow into productive, valued members of society.
Leon Louw, the executive director of the Free Market Foundation – who with Trevor Watkins judged the essays – made an excellent point to reconcile Glenister’s generous views, and his act of apparent love, kindness and generosity, with the self-interest principle underlying free market economics.
For Glenister to live a happy life, Louw noted, he needs a free, peaceful and prosperous society around him. The same goes for all of us. It is in our own best interest that others direct their energy to productive purposes, and live their lives free from the constraints imposed by the arbitrary exercise of power. The betterment of others is perfectly aligned with our own self-interest.
Glenister said his biggest mistake had been to believe that having been rid of one set of bullies 17 years ago, freedom had been irrevocably achieved. It has not. It merely replaced one set of bullies who abuse power for their own purposes with another. However, this time, it is for the younger generation to fight this, and earn the liberty that once was promised to all of us.
With characteristic eloquence, Louw pointed out that Glenister’s apparently selfless act, in sponsoring these trips, was an act of self-interest. If the corruption of power is not checked by a vigorous, thinking, idealistic young population, his own life would be much the poorer for it. “Thanks for being selfish enough to sponsor these trips to FreedomFest, Bob,” Louw quipped, entirely seriously.
The notion of love is not excluded by the apparently cold-hearted focus on economic self-interest. On the contrary. Love and charity and hope are all premised on our own self-interest. When we teach children who cannot afford to pay, or we feed people who cannot afford to eat, we don’t do this merely out of a generous, heroic selflessness. We act in our own best interest, because the stability and future prosperity of society is of great import to every one of us. The truly heroic among us – people whose names we carve on monuments and in our hearts – are those people who work to build and improve society as a whole. And their impulse towards loving others is not at all incompatible with the principles of self-interest and individual liberty. In fact, these principles are perfectly in tune.
Libertarians will not argue that love doesn’t exist, or has no value. All they will say is that it is not for the state to force us to act with kindness. Love cannot be decreed.
When you don’t care about someone, you might well act against their person or property without their consent. When you love someone, however, their consent is paramount. If the consent axiom is the moral foundation of free-market economics and the politics of individual liberty, then love is in no way in conflict with these ideas.
On the contrary. If you love someone, set them free. DM
PS. You can follow Ivo and the other South African attendees at FreedomFest 2011 on the Vega Five blog, or by following @Vega_Five on Twitter.
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.