The virtue of selfishness! Is there a right kind of selfishness?

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Why taking action to improve your own life – and the lives of those around you – is important for developing more prosperous and free societies.

There is a very strong title in a book by writer Ayn Rand that makes us reflect on our era and the society in which we live. It is “The Virtue of Selfishness.” In this and other works, the author spells out a moral and philosophical concept that she created, called “Objectivism.” I bring an excerpt from her book called The Rising: Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And this is where he faces his basic alternative: he can survive only in two ways – by working independently of his own mind or as a parasite, fed by the minds of others.

But unlike Rand’s theory, we live in a society in which altruism is valued – not selfishness. After much thought on this topic, my conclusion is that the American of Russian origin is correct: it would really be very selfish to want to give others the obligation to work for us.

In Brazil, we have many rights guaranteed by our Constitution that exist only in our Magna Carta. Either way, many believe that they don’t have to do anything to gain access to it, and that other people must work overtime or overpay to offset their own needs. And that is the pinnacle of selfishness.

That is, many do not think that, for free education, will depend on the work of dozens of people. From the workers who will build the school or university, through the industries that will manufacture the materials needed for the classes, to the teachers who will leave their homes daily to teach what they know for free. To an extreme point, there are dreamers who imagine that they have the right (or should have) to live a life without any work. For this to happen, it should have a house with land on which to grow food, solar energy plates to capture energy and a loom to make their own clothes. What they do not remember – or do not want to remember – is that someone will have to make all these apparatuses for free, or they would have to know how to make them themselves and effectively build it all.

These are extreme assumptions. But they helped me to think that there is no other option than to understand that society exists through voluntary exchange, and that the more exchange occurs, the more prosperous society will be. And when I say volunteer, I mean that people (and companies) should be free to choose what business and transactions they want to do.

The relationship between freedom and social development is evident when we realize, for example, that there is a huge correlation between the places that are part of the quality of life ranking produced annually by the English magazine The Economist and the Index of Economic Freedom released by the Heritage Foundation – The best countries to live in are also those with the most freedom, such as Switzerland, Australia, Singapore, and Canada. Unfortunately, Brazil ranks 118th on the Heritage Foundation list. But we live in a moment that can change this scenario. After all, in recent years there has been an increase in political awareness and a popularization of technology – in all social classes.

This movement has good consequences for the country, such as the understanding that entrepreneurship is important and a good way out for professionals. No wonder so many startups are emerging in the country. After the government has taken the wrong economic measures that have led to market distortions and thousands of unemployed, we, as our ancestors, are coming out of the caves to undertake.

Left-wing parties that supposedly want the good of the worker are beginning to lose ground to those who bring new ideas. We are inserted in a global context, where competition is not between employees and entrepreneurs. The current class struggle is between tax payers and tax receivers. There is a general understanding that prosperity exists where production is facilitated. That way each of us will have our needs met, as we will get most of what we produce.

And what does this have to do with selfishness and altruism? All. I explain: When an individual has their needs met, he begins to genuinely care about others – he wants other people to have the opportunities he has had. And examples of this behavior can be found here in Brazil. There are institutions like Yunus Foundation, Bem-vii Social Investment and MOV Investimentos that are run by successful executives who have a simple goal: to raise money from investors to create new businesses, generating more job opportunities and increasing the number of voluntary exchanges in society. Important to note that this money invested, is returned only after 8 years, without any monetary correction or interest.

This is completely counterintuitive, and it is happening more and more. The classic homo economicus always tries to maximize its financial return. But that’s not what happens in the daily life of the “real homo”, who cares and takes action to make his surroundings a better place for everyone. The fact is that we live in a cooperative society. The more people specialize, produce, and the more voluntary exchanges they make, the higher their standard of living will be.

That is, the more freedom each of us has to do what must be done, the better for the country and the population. Hence the importance of reducing the size of state action in our lives. After all, would you like to have products you use every day, such as a car, computer, cell phone and washing machine produced by the state? Do you believe they would be of as good quality as those produced by private companies? Imagine what a state Facebook would look like? We would probably have to go to a full-featured Savingshop to create an account, lose accounts of how many hours the social network would go down, have a restricted number of posts per day, and certainly a black market for posts. Today, as a nation, we are living on state-owned Facebook: we support a state that consumes 40% of everything produced in the country. In practice, this means that, on average, we work longer hours than the leading Heritage Foundation countries and have an infinitely lower standard of living.

The best countries are those that give freedom to their citizens. And to have freedom is to have a certain kind of selfishness. A selfishness in which everyone wants to improve his own life. But at the same time it automatically improves your surroundings. The only way anyone can be interested in the product or service you offer is if you solve someone’s problem. So even if you’re not worried about the next one, you’ll only succeed if you meet someone else’s demand. Be that kind of selfish. Don’t be the selfish one who believes that others owe you something. With that right kind of selfishness your life will be fuller – and that of the community in which you live, too.

Joseph Teperman

Article published in the book “A Small Past for Freedom, 2016”

Joseph Teperman
Author: Joseph Teperman

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