Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sign Wars

If you live in the Alamo Heights-Terrell Hills area, you have certainly seen these two yard signs.  I am told the “no socialism” sign began appearing in 2009, just as the healthcare debate was heating up.  Not long after the “no selfishness” sign began appearing.  I think that while the signs contain only two words, they convey much more.
 I’m quite sure “no socialism” signs were erected to protest what many feel is a leftward lurch in the country’s direction.  Washington has commenced on a power grab over the past two years and many were deeply concerned.  To counter, the “no selfishness” signs began to appear a short time later.  While their message was in a direct response to the former, the message it bears is much less unclear.

Selfishness is bad, right?  No one likes to be called selfish or to be known as a selfish person.  We teach our children to share, and admonish them when they act otherwise.  However, I would argue that the best way to employ our capital and labor is for each of us to act in our own self-interest, or be selfish.  Here’s but one illustration.  Suppose a farmer decides to be more selfless and give away his crops to the needy.  He starts small, but over time, he eventually gives all he has to the hungry, season after season.  Many would applaud the farmer’s efforts and label his enterprise the perfect business model.  However, a couple of things are working against him. 

How long can the farmer afford to give away the fruits of his labor and remain in business?  At some point, he will exhaust his capital and be forced into bankruptcy.  At a minimum, he will no longer have the necessary capital and labor to grow crops.  His land will now sit idle, producing nothing.  While his initial efforts seemed selfless and noteworthy, acting selflessly lead to his downfall.  Another effect wrought by the farmer’s generosity is dependency.  Folks have come to depend on and expect the yearly handouts.  Now the free food has disappeared, and those who have come to depend on the seasonal giveaway will be forced to look elsewhere for food, and will most likely have to pay for it.  These problems could have largely been avoided had the farmer acted in his own self-interest. 

 A profit-seeking farmer would have produced a much different outcome.  By selling his crops, he would have generated the profit necessary to continue the business, thus feeding the hungry indefinitely.  A non-free price would have incentivized the consumers to seek gainful employment, thus eliminating the dependency problem.   
While we often preach that selfishness is bad, acting in our own self-interest is often the best way to avoid the bigger problems of selflessness.
But perhaps I’m over-reacting and the sign wars is benign.  You be the judge.

1 comment:

  1. And when the charity from the private farmer runs out, the poor and needy turn immediately to....you got it....the government. And the generational trend continues. Now who is being selfish?