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The virtue of profit

By George F. Smith
web posted November 19, 2001

Arianna Huffington. You have to admit we're pretty brazen, we stole this picture right from her web site

It's tempting to accuse someone like columnist Arianna Huffington of profiting from capitalism, given the tirades she's launched at certain industries. Since she's attacking profit (alternately spelled heinous), I would expect she's raking in a sizable readership. She sails on smooth waters, with no mainstream voice rising in dissent.

Both sides of the political spectrum regard profit as an embarrassing leftover from the barbaric early days of unregulated markets. Though the acoustics will differ, they are of one voice in condemning profit. The syllogism goes something like this: All virtue is self-sacrifice. Profit is self-interest. Therefore, unless the profit is theirs, profit is not virtuous. In cowardly fashion that they consider practical, most corporations are expunging profit from their PR vocabulary. They don't earn profits, they announce, they make investments in the community. To dissuade doubters, the spokespersons are often minorities with self-effacing charm.

As the word is used by interventionists -- which is to say, almost anyone born between 5000 B.C. and the present -- profit is simply unearned income. In its starkest form, it's accomplished by overcharging customers and underpaying workers. It's the duty of enlightened politicians, therefore, to tax profits heavily, if not completely, so they can return it to the people it belongs to, while at the same time pushing for price controls and minimum wages. Liberal politicians are modern-day Robin Hoods defending the innocent from rip-off artists, according to this view.

War creates some interesting twists in morality. Murder in the conduct of war becomes excusable, if not virtuous, as a means of preemptive self-defense. Freedom, the very thing we're killing for, becomes a threat to our lives and is aggressively curtailed by a compassionate government. And profit, fully damnable in the best of times, becomes the Great Satan of the enemy's accusations and ours.

You might hear bombs exploding on TV, but people like Arianna hear cash registers ringing. Bunker-busters run $125,000, cruise missiles cost as much as $2 million. They can't stand the thought that someone is getting rich from all that destruction -- with taxpayer money.

Far worse, they allege, are firms like Bayer actually selling their products above cost. Their profit-diseased brains have lost all awareness of human decency. If they don't realize it's their duty to give us the medicine we might need -- instead of making us abide by the ridiculous notion of paying for what we get -- by God, they'll feel the wrath of Big Brother. The hell with the system that produced her weapon of choice -- the word processor -- put the corporations under the just hand of the federal government so they can't cheat us anymore.

Alas, she acknowledges, government is a cesspool too. Businessmen and politicians have become almost inseparable. As Microsoft has learned, successful companies learn to "work with" politicians or else end up in government cross-hairs.

The reason is embarrassingly obvious. Politicians need big bucks for re-election and have the power to affect the economy. Thus, corporations that want to get ahead view politicos as a species of capital that affords them competitive advantages. Many times "the best politicians money can buy" are pocketed for security, for protection from destructive legislation.

Businesses with powerful lobbies can make out like bandits, literally. "The pharmaceutical industry," Arianna rants, "which has 625 registered lobbyists . . . spent a whopping $177 million on lobbying in the last two years."

In this way they turn the coercive power of government in their favor. A clear example is a government agency called the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which provides companies with risk-free investing in high-risk countries. If their investments bomb, taxpayers bail them out. If profit emerges, the gains go to the companies, not the taxpayers.

Most people want more laws enacted to keep businesses from influencing politics. What we need, though, is to repeal laws -- keep anyone from securing special favors from our elected officials. Politicians need to focus on the Constitution they swore to uphold -- defending us, not trying to get re-elected. They profit too much from political power. Take away that power, and lobbyists will have nothing to lobby for.

Without the strong-arm tactics of government, businesses will have to earn their profits honestly. No bailouts, no pork, no government-enforced monopolies -- no political favors, period. If this happens, people will come to respect the role of business acumen in running successful enterprises. Profits earned on a laissez-faire market will be a result of satisfying the wants of customers, not politicians.

If we are to survive, profit must be recognized as a moral virtue.

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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