Friday, August 13, 2004

The Culture: Productivity and Sacrifice

Note: I wrote this essay this summer for an English composition course I had to take at George Mason. I received an "A" for the assignment and an "A" for the course. Now that I'm finished for the summer, I thought I'd post it here.

A businessman or woman is a creator. They take the abstract theories of scientists and engineers and turn them into practical reality. They marshal the material, money and productive talent necessary to create a bounty unknown to any other period of history. Prior to the era of the businessman, people either lived a hand and mouth existence, or they looted the wealth of their neighbors. Businessmen and women make our world possible, yet few groups more marginalized.

Every form of disparagement is heaped upon businessmen, They are derided as robber-barons. They are smeared as soulless money-grubbers. They are shackled with corporate taxes and subject to endless regulations. If you need a villain or a hapless fool for a movie or novel, make him a businessman—a Scrooge, Babbitt or a Loman to highlight the evils of capitalism.

The more accomplished a businessman becomes, the more likely he is to be a target for the envious. Aided by the antitrust laws, laws whose premise is that the person who creates is a coercive threat to the person who does not, the unsuccessful are able to demand a tribute they could never earn by their own effort in the free market. One example: In the years since Bill Gates established Microsoft as the software standard for PC operating systems, Microsoft has been under relentless attack for attempting to improve its products by adding new features. These innovations have lead not to increased profits, but to billions of dollars in payouts to settle antitrust lawsuits filed against Microsoft by Microsoft's competitors and trial lawyers representing the class action bar.

The antitrust attack against Microsoft is driven by the idea that Microsoft is unfairly levering is success in operating systems against other companies and consumers. Yet a private company has no power to force consumers to do anything. Microsoft has no police force or army that compels people to use its software. The only "leverage" Microsoft has is the leverage it has earned by producing products that people want to buy.

The motive for this and other attacks against businessmen is simple: a businessman desires profit. He creates for his own sake and he seeks a return on his investments. He is selfish. He does not give the unearned any more then he would take it. He is a producer and trader.

Yet it is exactly for his virtues that a businessman is vilified. He is told that the pursuit of his own ends leaves him morally wanting and that his primary mission is not to become more productive, but to live up to his “social responsibility.” A good businessman, it is said, "gives back" to the society that enriched him.

"Social responsibility," or "giving back" implies an ethical duty to others; the argument goes that because one lives in society, one must genuflect before it. Mother Teresa, the angel of the gutters of Calcutta, would be a prime example of this view. Teresa dedicated her life to the poor of India; her dedication was so great she received the Nobel Peace Prize in honor of her work, and in death she is on her way to becoming canonized a saint—the Catholic church’s means of highlighting its view of human perfection on Earth.

Yet Teresa produced nothing. She grew no food, commissioned no factory, nor claimed any patent. Throughout her life, Teresa preached utter self-sacrifice; the nuns of her order were instructed to avoid any labor-saving device, not because it was unavailable to them, but because Teresa held that suffering, denial, and brutal work were pleasing to God. Personal bonds of friendship were forbidden to the nuns of Teresa’s order on the grounds that if the nuns befriended the recipients of their charity, they may act out of love, and love is anything but selfless. While speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast during one of her visits to the US, Teresa was quite succinct about her position: "Are we willing to give until it hurts…or do we put our own interests first?"

It is no surprise then that profit motive repulsed Teresa as an insult against giving until it hurts and that she saw the people of the United States—a people dedicate to profit—as “morally impoverished.” According to Teresa's moral code, the best and the brightest—the very human dynamos that make life and happiness possible—are the earth's most wretched. Why? Because most of them are unwilling to renounce their lives and serve the slums as she did. Teresa's standard wasn't individualism but egalitarianism; a brutal, hard equality that makes even the most efficacious renounce themselves for the sake of others.

Yet at her own moral best, all Teresa did was distribute the wealth given to her by others—it was the people who grew the food and who built and worked in the factories, office buildings and stores that made the material values she redistributed possible. If the relief of human suffering is a moral ideal, and life is nothing more than a perpetual hospital, who's work did more to achieve this ideal: Teresa's, or that her donors?

Yet human life is not a hospital. We are capable of answering the questions of existence—of reshaping nature to successfully provide for ourselves. If Teresa really wanted to relive human suffering, she could have said, “become capitalists—be productive.” Rather then preach renunciation, she could have said, "Be productive enough to care for yourself, because life requires productivity. Be productive enough to care for the ones you love, because you value your relationships selfishly. Be productive enough to provide for the children you bring into this world, because they have no means to provide for themselves until you teach them. Demand the freedom to produce and the right to keep the benefits of your work. Be businessmen and women."

But Teresa never held and respect for business; she never could. Teresa's altruism and love of poverty got in the way of her ever recognizing the abundance of capitalism and the morality of its ethical base. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are incompatible with a life earnestly dedicated to selfless sacrifice. "Social responsibility" is just another code word for self-immolation. All values are selfish. There is nothing gained from human sacrifice.

In an era where corporate scandals make frequent news and corruption treated as the norm, perhaps the real scandal is the utter lack of perspective—a perspective that demonizes businessmen and deifies Mother Teresa.

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