I confess that this phrase comes to me all too frequently – and yet I now think that it is the beginning of Wisdom.
Imagine yourself in conversation with an intelligent child, not only intelligent but filled with good will towards mankind. He or she perceives that the world is far from perfect. Some people have lots of good things; others don’t. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody had enough?” he opines. Of course it would. The innocent child supposes that a benevolent government could pass a law which mandated a sufficiency for everybody. We are now into questions of policy. As the conversation proceeds the policy hardens into the idea that the government should take some good things from those who have lots and give some to those who don’t. This immediately introduces the concept of Justice. Taking things away from people against their will is known as theft. So a benevolent impulse has led you, in a very few steps, to advocating stealing.
How well did it use to be said that anyone under the age of thirty who was not a socialist had no heart, whereas anyone over the age of thirty who was a socialist had no head.
This is a tricky world, in which benevolent impulses lead to pernicious results. And if you doubt the perniciousness of socialism, count the corpses of those deliberately murdered in the name of socialism in the 20th century (about 81 million) add to this number the count of those who died because of the incompetence of socialist planners. You will get a very big number indeed.
In spite of this, socialists have claimed the high moral ground and have denigrated capitalism as being based on greed. This is a lie.
What is a capitalist?
A capitalist is someone who either by saving (deferring gratification) or by borrowing (demonstrating his credit-worthiness) creates an enterprise with a view to satisfying his own needs. Satisfying our own needs is not wicked and greedy. Indeed, we do so every time we eat a nourishing meal, having washed our hands before doing so. Some entrepreneurs merely scrape by. Some are highly successful. A shopkeeper may employ only himself in his enterprise; an industrialist may employ thousands, agreeing (in effect) with each employee a payment which is mutually advantageous. No evil has been committed. Indeed, much good is often the result: worthwhile products for consumers and worthwhile employment for the workers.
This is extraordinary paradox which Adam Smith delineated: the “invisible hand” which creates wealth out of the desire for our own wellbeing.
So, instead of sighing, “Wouldn’t it be nice if...?”, we should rejoice: “Even in this fallen world good can come of self-regard.”
Are some entrepreneurs greedy? Of course! All burglars and muggers are! The essence of entrepreneurship is risk taking and hard work.
It is a tragedy that in our far from free market system many succeed not by thrift, hard work and honest dealings but by gaming the system, by using political means to rig markets. This is not “market failure”; it is simple corruption.