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The public be damned: Moral servitude creates masters

By George F. Smith
web posted September 10, 2001

"People are not embracing collectivism because they have accepted bad economics. They are accepting bad economics because they have embraced collectivism."

These words, written by Ayn Rand to Leonard Read in 1946 (Letters of Ayn Rand, Berliner, 1995), hint at the futility of defending capitalism. Collectivism will never lose its appeal as long as altruism saturates our culture.

You ask: "What's wrong with altruism? Isn't it just a fancy word for compassion or charity? We would be less than human if we lacked those virtues."

There's a vital distinction that leftists hope we miss. Compassion is an emotion - sympathy for the suffering of others, often including a desire to help. Altruism, on the other hand, is a creed, a moral code, in which service to others is considered right and good. In altruism's world, we each owe an obligation to others by virtue of our existence, and it's an obligation that's never discharged. Put simply, altruism is moral servitude.

In practice, this allows politicians and their pals to get away with murder.

It also puts capitalism's spokespersons in a tight spot. Not wanting to appear immoral, they usually try to sell capitalism on the grounds that it overwhelmingly serves others - society, the public, the homeless, the children, the working man. Some will even insist that businessmen chase profits to help the poor and the needy, or risk fortunes so that others will rise from poverty or have steady jobs or go to school free.

Only leftists would accuse them of chasing profits to get rich or risking fortunes to get richer.

No one wants to talk about individual rights, the moral foundation of capitalism. That's too close to selfishness. There's no future in going to war over morality. Fight the left, but don't fight them in the name of self-interest, for Pete's sake. Focus instead on exposing their lies, power lust, and economic nonsense - God knows there's plenty of it. Keep swinging away, and eventually voters will see the sham of their agenda.

Only it hasn't worked. Capitalism's defenders never finish their opponents properly - never deliver the knockout blow. The fight never ends because leftists have morality on their side: they openly espouse altruism.

Free-market advocates just don't get it. Altruism and capitalism are natural enemies.

So the futility continues. Capitalism delivers the goods, they point out. It makes us wealthy by serving our fellow man. When there's more wealth, there's more wealth to give away.

Or more wealth to expropriate, if you're a collectivist. Altruism imposes the duty to redistribute wealth. As institutionalized altruism, interventionism is perfectly justified. Big government is a noble ideal. The rattlings of the right about confiscation are thinly-veiled defenses of greed.

The idea of the individual as servant is at least as old as the first tribe. It's no accident that Auguste Comte, who devised the term "altruism," was one of many 19th-century intellectuals who rejected the idea of individual sovereignty and advocated rule by an unrestrained elite.

No one will ever sell capitalism to the folks next door until they can sell its underlying morality of individualism. The tragic irony is, capitalism, with selfishness at its core, is a moral social system. It replaces compulsion with consent. It recognizes the sovereignty of the individual. Compassion and charity are not forced on anyone.

This is how most people get along with each other in their private lives - through consent and as moral equals. But having accepted altruism as their ideal, they grant government the power to bully and rob us.

Consequently, altruism will always excuse any extreme of government injustice. Rush Limbaugh, in an outrage over credit card abuse by federal employees ("Credit Card Crock," 8/15/01), in which banks in 2001 alone have had to write off nearly $20 million in bad debt, calls the situation "incomprehensible." He remarks caustically that "the government employee's union probably has a clause somewhere in the employment contract that says you can't do anything to people who engage in this kind of fleecing because 'they're only trying to help the country.'"

Most people would say the federal employees are selfish. But stealing is not selfish; it's detrimental to anyone who recognizes the rights of others. Under altruism, stealing is the modus operandi, only it goes by names such as "social justice" or "helping the country."

Thomas Sowell observed in his column "Lessons not learned" (1/5/01) that "the defeat of the Nazis on the battlefields of World War II and of the Communist bloc in the Cold War has taught us remarkably little about what was wrong with those systems."

"At the heart of totalitarian dictatorship," he continues, "is the idea that there is no rule of law superior to the will of those who hold power or the ideology they are promoting."

And if we look further into that heart we'll find that it got that way by convincing its citizens their highest ideal was in service to the state. Countries that recognize and protect individual rights have a built-in repellent to would-be dictators and their ideology.

Promoting economic understanding is only part of the solution. People won't support a system that runs contrary to their moral convictions. And demagogues know this.

In a biting commentary ("This just in: price controls cause shortages," 2/1/01) Ann Coulter ridicules California lawmakers for attempting to defy cause and effect. But the legislators and the governor had morality on their side - they kept retail electricity rates frozen for the benefit of the people. They knew it made no sense economically. They also knew they could get away with it because they were harnessing greedy power companies for the sake of their constituents. They created a mess, but their heart was in the right place, people believed.

And for that they'll probably get re-elected. After all, they were serving "the public," while we all know who the power companies are serving.

The public be damned.

To collectivists, only the devil incarnate would utter those words - because if rightly understood, they're a potential threat to blow their whole scheme wide open. ESR

George Smith is full-time freelance writer with a special interest in liberty issues and screenwriting. His articles have appeared on Ether Zone, and in the Gwinnett Daily Post, Writer's Yearbook, Creative Loafing, and Goal Magazine. He has a web site for screenwriters and other writers at

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