A friend posted the above statement on Facebook a few weeks ago, along with a photo of the late Christopher Hitchens, and added the following comment of his own: “He was often a complete idiot (being a contrarian was his fatal, childish flaw), but in this case, he’s right on target.” I couldn’t help myself; I responded, no doubt unhelpfully, that although Hitchens was always an entertaining writer, he was as childishly wrong about this as he could possibly be.
In the spirit of the season, let me take a few moments here to try to be a bit more helpful. First of all, to clarify, far from thinking that Americans are not yet selfish enough, libertarians think that human beings are not yet free enough, whether they live in Bangor, Maine or Bangladesh. Whether you use the greater liberty libertarians want you to have to help your fellow man or to go off and live in the woods by yourself is strictly speaking immaterial. Freedom makes you free; what you do with that freedom is up to you, and has nothing really to do with libertarianism.
To be fair to Hitchens, though, there are some libertarians who explicitly endorse a form of selfishness, and these are probably the people to whom he was referring. They are fans and followers of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Provocatively enough, Rand wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness, so part of the blame falls on her shoulders for preferring provocation over clarity. Because the selfishness to which this title alludes is more properly called rational or enlightened self-interest.
As anyone who has actually read Rand’s work will confirm, the selfishness that she advocated amounts to saying: Your life belongs to you. It does not belong to your parents, or your neighbour, or your honourable representatives in government. It is yours to live as you see fit. But as a direct and explicit corollary, neither does your neighbour’s life belong to you. Neither a slave nor a master be.
The alternative to dealing with other human beings through the use of force, as masters and slaves, is to deal with each other voluntarily, as traders, offering value for value. If your self-interested end is to become rich, the only way to do so while respecting the code of honour promulgated by Ayn Rand is to offer other people something they want and are willing to pay you for. What a rotten, selfish bitch, eh?
In fact, liberating people to enrich themselves through trade and innovation, and assigning dignity to this pursuit of material plenty, is precisely what has made large swaths of the world so fabulously wealthy by historical standards. Criticizing the “selfishness” of honest, hard-working, creative people who just want to improve their lot—as did a feature on the rise of China in this weekend’s Globe and Mail—therefore risks undoing the great material progress of modern civilization.
The notion that forcing people to be less self-interested would promote anything but resentment is really difficult for me to wrap my head around, Hitch’s wisecracks notwithstanding. If we want to promote a feeling of goodwill to all, we need to let people be free to enrich themselves by providing value to others. Only to the extent that we come to see each other primarily as sources of value rather than as threats to our security, as traders rather than as masters and slaves, will we approach that other Christmas ideal: peace on Earth.