Banning profits may seem a fringe attitude, but one of the most influential doctrines of all time, Marxism, was against profit.
The current socialist president of France, François Hollande, says he dislikes “rich people.”
So lets look at the issue from both sides.
There is no question that the desire for profit can cause harm. Consider a few dramatic items:
1. “On 24 April 2013, an eight-story commercial building, Rana Plaza, collapsed in Savar, a sub-district in the Greater Dhaka Area, the capital of Bangladesh. The search for the dead ended on 13 May with the death toll of 1,127…
Warnings to avoid using the building after cracks appeared the day before had been ignored. Garment workers were ordered to return the following day and the building collapsed during the morning rush-hour.”
2. In the United States, there are people who make millions off the despair of parents who have autistic children, or of people with incurable diseases. They market “natural remedies” that don’t work to these desperate people, and ironically, they present themselves as the idealists standing against the paid stooges (such as regular doctors and scientists) that claim that natural remedies don’t work. In my state (New York), there is a legal mandate that insurance should pay for “Chiropractic doctors”. I have three relatives that have fallen for that particular scam and been treated by them. So I looked up this so-called field of medicine. It was invented by a “mesmerist” in 1895 who claimed he cured a deaf man by pushing down at the back of the man’s neck. From this amazing success, this mesmerist concluded that ALL diseases are caused by mis-aligned nerves, and thus started a scam that shows no signs of dying out. I bicycle through many small towns, and very often I see a sign for a Chiropractor. I guess one could argue that these “doctors” do offer a massage, and we know that being touched (by massage or by anyone) is good for people, and so why complain? But its an awfully expensive massage, and also, Chiropractors have been responsible for serious damage and worse (one girl with a tumor was denied normal treatment on the advice of a Chiropractor, and ended up dead).
So I’d like to see some young idealists who put “people over profit” marching against these folks. But young idealists have a herd mentality, and more likely would be camping out in various parks with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.
3. In the book “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler.”, Ben Urwand shows that the large German market for American movies swayed Hollywood studio bosses to do what the Nazis wanted. Many of these people were Jews, but “in spite of their background and personal identity, the people who most readily could have alerted the world to the dangers of the Nazi regime decided that their main consideration was to protect the German market for their movies. The list of compromises they made with their conscience seems almost beyond belief. Urwand provides us with behind the scenes stories of active cooperation between Hollywood and Hitler that boggles the mind.
Bosses of some of the major studios invited Nazi officials to come to Los Angeles, preview films scene by scene and edit them to suit their propaganda… Movies critical of what was happening in Germany were shelved.
In a 1938 letter from the German branch of 20th Century Fox, recently found in German state archives in Berlin, the studio humbly asked whether Hitler would share his opinions on American movies – and, to assure the good graces of the recipient, signed the request “Heil Hitler”. And, most damaging of all, according to yet another document, major studio heads helped finance the manufacture of German armaments.
4. The tobacco companies continue to market tobacco, even though they know it is harmful. The folks who market this may wear white shirts and tie, but less well-dressed Latino immigrants have set up Marijuana farms in the middle of our national forests, and put booby traps nearby to catch any hiker or law enforcement person who strays in that direction. (Marijuana is also not good for people’s health)
4. And what about profits made from people’s weaknesses? Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer spent up to 80,000 dollars on prostitutes, and ironically, an ex-madam who claims to have supplied Mr. Spitzer with hookers is now his opponent in the race to become NYC’s next comptroller.
“This is going to be the funnest campaign ever,” Kristin Davis, who spent three months in prison for running an escort service, told The New York Daily News.
“I’ve been waiting for my day to face [Spitzer] for five years,” Davis said. “I sat … in Rikers Island, I came out penniless and nothing happened to him. The hypocrisy there is huge.”
Davis is running as a Libertarian, and on her campaign website, she describes herself as “a feminist, entrepreneur, and former Wall Street Hedge Fund Vice President” who has the “financial management and business experience to be an effective fiscal watchdog for the New York taxpayer.”
She also says she’s the only candidate who supports the legalization and taxation of marijuana in order to close NYC’s budget deficit.
The scandal of a New York Governor running circles around his security detail to visit prostitutes embodies some issues about profit. Eliot’s weaknesses ended up causing him and his daughters and his wife a lot of pain, and made lots of people despise him. But it was all consensual, and Kristin made money by fulfilling a need. Or should we say – by fulfilling a desire.
And that raises the question – do people always want what is good for them?
I’m a partial libertarian, but I would draw the line at making profits on harmful drugs and trading sex for money.
But now let me slam some idealists.
1. One kind of idealism is forgoing profits to help people. Or making other people forego profits for your idea of what helps people. Unfortunately some idealists get into government with the program of “social justice”, which means that all citizens of a country (and sometimes non-citizens) should share in the wealth of a country, which in practice means redistributing wealth by taking away from the rich, and the middle class. This sounds idealistic, but generally, its not the money of the idealists that is being taken away. And it has side-effects by creating all sorts of perverse incentives, sometimes in what the middle class does with its money, or industry does, or what the poor themselves do. For instance, there are many jobs going unfilled in the US – that require a mixture of hard manual work and some math and reading ability. And yet, we have a huge welfare population of strong young men. Something does not compute here.
2. I remember reading of a Nazi idealist who said he could have spent his life having fun and making money, but the cause of Nazism was more important.
3. We have a president (Obama) who for a brief time worked for a private company, and described it in his book “Dreams of my Father” as “working behind enemy lines”. This is quite a remarkable attitude.
Recently, our president said in a speech “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution….Invest. Divest…”
This came as a thrill to the ears of college students who lead divestment campaigns against oil, coal, and gas companies. Says a New York Times article (7/9/2013) “..students recounted leaping to their feet or nearly falling off their chairs when the president uttered the word [divest].”
Now I suppose if you think you are saving the world from Global Warming, and from rising seas that will flood our coastal cities, and clouds of malarial mosquitoes that will move north from the tropics and attack us, and you want to prevent the deaths of ecosystems, and destructive hurricanes, and droughts and fires and all things bad, then those greedy fossil fuel companies who stand in the way of this must be stopped. It’s that pesky profit motive again, preventing us adopting a more sensible, sustainable lifestyle and leading to global disaster. Lets go green.
But what if those green technologies don’t work? What if the cost of this green energy drives up electric bills to the point that old pensioners actually freeze to death (it has happened). And as far as the eco-system goes, what if you kill large numbers of rare birds with those windmills? What if you deface vast amounts of land with solar panels and windmills, including public wild lands, in your efforts to replace concentrated energy? And if that CO2 is causing global warming, then why hasn’t the planet warmed in the last ten or more years?
And as far as those tobacco companies I mentioned earlier, selling a product that they know damages people, the fact is that the voters of Colorado recently voted to legalize Marijuana, a drug that can push people toward Schizophrenia, as well as probably causing lung cancer, just like tobacco. (see http://lungcancer.about.com/od/causesoflungcance1/f/marijuana.htm). If people ignore the very real down-side of recreational drugs to the point of voting for them to be made legal, then they are at least as much at fault as the purveyors of those drugs.
Adam Smith (baptized in 1723 in England) was one of the earliest thinkers about the free enterprise system. Its worth recollecting what he said about entrepreneurs:
“…by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
So is the protester with the sign outside the corporate headquarters really better for society than the guy with the tie at the computer inside? I guess it depends. And I’ll leave it at that.
Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Paul Offit, M.D.