Noblesse oblige...or else

By Gord Gekko
web posted August 1998

Putting it quite simply, a businessperson must follow a few basic rules in becoming a success:

1. Innovate.
2. Be better than your competition.
3. Give the consumer what they want...when they want it.

Following those basic rules gave the world people like Thomas Watson, who helped facilitate the introduction of the computer leading to our modern age; Henry Ford who popularized the assembly line and allowed him to pay his workers more than anyone else and win mass appeal for the automobile; and Bill Gates, whose products have brought the power of the PC to the average person.

But there is a fourth -- and usually unspoken -- rule. The acceptance of force.

You're (hopefully) no doubt saying to yourself, "Gord, capitalism is a system based on the elimination of force, what are you talking about?"
The most evil? The world's richest

1. Bill Gates, $51 billion
2. Walton family, $48 billion
3. Warren Buffett, $33 billion
4. Paul Allen, $21 billion
5. Ken Thompson, $14.4 billion

Source: Forbes, July 6, 1998

That force is often called noblesse oblige.

Basically put, noblesse oblige is a theory practiced by many of the wealthy, a theory that says once they've made it, they owe something to the community. The material wealth they've achieved, goes the thought, should be given back to those less fortunate than they. It is not an option, but a duty to your fellow human.

It's a theory that balances feeling badly about your lessers, but still considering yourself better than them. You are, after all, helping them.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with charitable works. If you receive pleasure from helping someone or a cause you feel is worthy, then by all means do it. It is your money, after all. But behind today's idea of noblesse oblige is the use of force.

You've made it. Give it to us or you won't keep it.

Where before it was the belief of the wealthy that is was their duty to help today it's society's expectation that either the money comes or the wealthy go.

The latest incarnation of this belief was recently expressed in the pages of the ostensibly pro-capitalist British newspaper The Economist. In a front page story entitled "The challenge for America's rich" (May 30-June 5, 1998), it was argued that America's rich aren't doing enough to help the poor...and they may end up paying for it the hard way.

"The challenge for America's rich" reminded me strongly of George Soros' now infamous February 1997 Atlantic Monthly essay, "The Capitalist Threat".

In his essay Soros argued that the "open society" that we enjoy is being threatened by unchecked capitalism. Soros believes that many capitalists have accepted capitalism, and are promoting it as, an ultimate truth without understanding the ramifications and effects of such a move. It has become a force, like totalitarian ideologies which is destroying common interests.

"Laissez-faire capitalism holds that the common good is best served by the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest. Unless it is tempered by the recognition of a common good that ought to take precedence over particular interests, our present system is liable to break down," wrote Soros.

Sharing the same outlook, it is no surprise that the essay lauds Soros and philosophical peer Ted Turner, exclaiming that both show "imagination" in their charitable donations. Soros has given hundreds of millions to drug legalization organizations and the rebuilding of former Soviet Bloc countries, while Turner dropped a mere $1 billion on the United Nations.

"But when Tim Wirth, a former senator who now runs Mr. Turner's United Nations Foundation explained his plans in April, one of the loudest cheers greeted the speaker who begged the 'other robber barons' to do their bit too," celebrated the Economist.

Unless there are more like Soros and Turner, says the essay, then the wealthy will suffer the same fate as the last century's Rockefellers, Morgans and Vanderbilts, with laws enacted to "cut them down to size." Like those 19th century families, today's extremely wealthy are enjoying an unprecedented build-up of wealth.

Unlike their wealthy counterparts of the past century, however, who were not saved from laws even by their philanthropy as the magazine points out, today's wealthy are not as giving or not giving in the same fashion. Rather than simply shower their money across the fruited plain, they are targeting their donations to causes they find compelling. As an example, the average computer billionaire is shelling out money hooking up schools to the Internet or giving personal computers to the poor...not building hospitals, schools or libraries in some backwater town.

"On the other side stand the lesson of of history (even the robber barons' generosity did not avert a backlash) and the fact that few of the new rich seem to be aware that they are doing anything questionable at all," writes the magazine.

How long can this type of wealth creation go on, asks the Economist, before politicians step in and "rein in capitalism?"

To forestall any moves by the guardians of the public good, the magazine argues that business people must realize that their job is not to simply be the best businessperson they can be, that the wealth they are enjoying today did not come from their hard work, but from the system itself.

"The more dangerous...idea is the notion that America's rich owe their wealth entirely to their own brilliance, when in fact they also owe much of it to the system," says the essay in one of its less individualistic moments.

These people must realize that there is an unspoken contract that underpins the American dream, says the essay. Once you've made it, you have a duty to help other people try and reach your lofty height. If that contract is broken, then there could be serious trouble for the wealthy.

Popper, Soros, Turner, the Economist, and people like Arianna Huffington -- the conservative compassion queen -- all labour under several errors that have led them to the path of supporting unspoken violence as a basis for capitalism.

"I'm after a man whom I want to destroy. He died many centuries ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of man's minds, we will not have a decent world to live in."

"What man?"

"Robin Hood."

Ragnar Danneskjöld to Hank Reardan, Atlas Shrugged

The first of these errors is confusing duty with virtue. As Ayn Rand wrote, duty is defined as the "moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to a higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest." Those who argue that it is the duty of the wealthy to give that which they worked for demands a dichotomy: the demand that a person take care for their own regard versus the regard of others.

If you believe that it is a virtuous and ethical for a person to live for one's self, in this case to be the best businessperson possible, then you can't square rational self-interest and self-sacrifice.

Their second error is in believing that capitalism is the best way to achieving the public good. While capitalism is the best way to better society and its misfortunate, it is not the justification for capitalism. The system is moral because it holds the individual over society, because it celebrates independence governed by rationality over force.

The public or common good is a nebulous non-concept since there is no such rights-holding entity as society. Society is merely a group of individuals and has no new aggregate rights that its individuals do not have. The common good also supposes that a group of people has a claim to the production of an individual because they have need. If that's true, a successful individual is nothing more than a sacrificial animal to society. The public good is nothing more than a tribalistic philosophy that demotes the individual and their rights.

And that's where Popper, Soros, Turner, and the Economist all err. To them a primary justification of capitalism is self-sacrificial tribalism. Once you've made it, it is your duty to society to give back...unless you want the rest of the tribe to take it. Either way, you must give or else.

A person forced to live by the decisions of others in his tribe is forced to ignore their self-interest. On a related topic, philosopher Leonard Peikoff wrote, "He must devote himself to imitating, cajoling, obeying (or forcing) the others in power, whatever they believe. By the nature of the system, those others are his means of survival: directly or indirectly, they control his intellectual tool, the means of cognition, and his material tools, the means of production."

Is this your vision of capitalism? It is for Popper, Soros, Turner, and the Economist.

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