Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Good can and often does emerge from actions not intending it. Bad can and often does emerge from actions intending to do good

The idea that good can and often and does emerge from actions not intending it, and, that bad can and often and does emerge from actions intending to do good, is amazingly unfamiliar to many, perhaps most, thinking people today - and this is true not only of young people, though they are the ones I would like to target with this post. 

I write this out of my frustration in encountering a tremendous resistance to the idea by young people known to me, some of them very close to me. They dismiss it when I say it, thinking it is some kind of apologetics coming from me, a certifiably extreme "conservative" thinker [though of course I am neither extreme nor conservative]. How to pierce the barrier of knee-jerk disbelief to provoke real thought is something I have yet to figure out. In the meantime, for the choir or for those who might be willing to give it a chance, here is what I believe. 

Prosperity is not the result of intending to do good, but stagnation through the welfare state is the result of so intending to do good. The road to stagnation, corruption, deprivation, and poverty is paved with good intentions.

Doing well pretty much trumps doing good when it comes to doing good. Intentions are (or should be considered) irrelevant in evaluating the outcome. Doing well does much more good than intentionally doing good. And, at the individual level, the obvious good done by the Bill and Melinda Gatefoundation pales compared to the good Microsoft has done by transforming average people's lives while pursuing profits.

There is nothing particularly worthy about doing good altruistically as compared to doing good by making profits when you understand the greater good that the latter does. But the prevailing conventional wisdom has deprived the business person of the ability to benefit from this understanding, because most people not only simply do not understand it, but, in addition, what they think they know about it is exactly the opposite, namely, that in order to do good one must intend to do so directly and not by pursuing profits – pursuing profits according to this conventional wisdom results in exploitation and inequality, not general wealth-creation, and besides is selfish and unworthy. Businessmen out for profits are want to "trick" consumers into buying their products. The public discourse has thus demonized profit-seeking, but doing good by doing well is admirable and should be praised. And businessmen should be made to feel proud and motivated by it.

It is not acceptable to condemn successful business people for not doing enough for charity. What the successful businessman has done is incredibly admirable (though he personally may not be so admirable) and will do more good indirectly and in the long run than any charitable contributions he would have made. I am happy to praise charitable contributions. But I am not going to exaggerate their good or diminish the greater good done by simply doing business - by providing people more valuable options that they can afford and give them the ability to elevate their lives. We put hard-working entrepreneurs in the position of thinking they have to apologize for the profits they make and cover their rears by ensuring that they make some token charitable contributions. It is obnoxious in the extreme and if not remedied will bring the end of our profit-driven wealth-creating economy.

See Dwight Lee and J.R. Clark on “Markets and Morality” here.  

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