Cue Card Libertarianism - Harmony of interests

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Tue, 2006-01-31 22:31

As I said here recently, no man is an island and neither should we be. In a free society, we each gain an incalculable boon from the existence of others. Just some of the benefits of living in a free society are the following:

  • the learning and knowledge we may glean from others -- being able to stand on the shoulders of geniuses underpins all subsequent scientific, technological and artistic advances;
  • the love, friendships and artistic gifts we may share with each other;
  • the 'seed capital' produced from prior production that may be made available to us for our own projects;
  • the abundance of wealth and technological progress made possible by capitalism which makes our existing lives happer, healthier and longer than they would otherwise be.

So what good is sitting alone on your island. 'Come here the music play!'

In a free society, all the many benefits to be gained from others are non-sacrificial ones. Advancement, wealth-production, love and friendship... all derive not from plunder and conquest, but by cooperation and voluntary exchange. By mutual benevolence. As David Kelly explains in his book Unrugged Individualism, "Benevolence is a commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence, and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours." A free society is not do-eat-dog, since we all gain incalculably from all those who are 'winning.'

Benevolence is both the result and the pre-condition of enjoying the fruits of a free society. Robert Le Fevre, for example, in explaining ownership [audio] -- how you acquire it, and why it's to everyone's advantage to respect boundaries -- also explains implicitly the need and result of benevolence in the principle of property ownership. (You might want to compare Le Fevre's presentation to my own on the same subject. Or you might not.)

The field of economics also helps explain the harmony of interests amongst free people. The Law of Comparative Advantage, while somewhat difficult to grasp, is just one side of an economic coin explaining the harmony:

Free people are not a threat to each other. Your neighbour may be bigger, stronger, more efficient, more productive, and even better looking, but it's to the advantage of both of you to keep working at what you do best. (If you didn't do it the other day, and this still sounds screwy, then try the Desert Island Game. It's a good introduction to this important idea.) The law of comparative advantage, first identified by David Ricardo, recognises that no matter how poor you yourself may be at your work, if both you and your neighbour specialise in what you each do best, then at the end of the day you are both better off. The best way, for example, for the Swiss to get grain is not to grow grain, but to make cuckoo clocks and watches so they can trade for grain. And when they do, we're all better off.

If you think the Law of Comparative Advantage seems to make no sense, then don't worry, you're not alone. As PJ O'Rourke writes in his book Eat the Rich, "Todd G. Buchholz, in his book New Ideas from Dead Economists, says 'An insolent natural scientist once asked a famous economist to name one economic rule that isn't either obvious or unimportant.' The reply was 'Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage.'" If you're struggling with the concept, and the game doesn't help explain it, O'Rourke's short explanation is one of the best on record, and undoubtedly the only one using Courtney Love to help explain things.

In a free society there is room for all. The Law of Comparative Advantage explains how the less able contribute to the more able, to the great benefit of both. On the other side of this coin representing the harmony of interests of free people is the Pyramid-of-Ability Principle identified by Ayn Rand -- this principle recognises the enormous contribution made by the more able to the less able:

As George Reisman puts it, the law of comparative advantage explains the "contribution of the cleaning lady to [noted inventor, Thomas] Edison"; by contrast, the Pyramid-of-Ability Principle explains the "contribution of Edison to the cleaning lady." What Edison makes possible for the cleaning lady is much, much more than she coudl have achieved under her own steam. As David Kelly explains: "The men with the greatest minds and talents confer on others much more value than they ever receive in return, no matter how much wealth they acquire, [while] the least able receive much more value than they create."

The concept that integrates this principle is what Ayn Rand called the Pyramid of Human Ability. Rather than the strong exploiting the weak, as popular wisdom would tell you is the case, the 'weak' are far more 'exploitative' of the strong. But the strong are not complaining; they just keep right on producing.

Frederic Hamber explains the reason: it is our minds, not our muscles that are the real source of wealth and progress:

Contrary to the Marxist premise that wealth is created by laborers and "exploited" by those at the top of the pyramid of ability, it is those at the top, the best and the brightest, who increase the value of the labor of those at the bottom. Under capitalism, even a man who has nothing to trade but physical labor gains a huge advantage by leveraging the fruits of minds more creative than his. The labor of a construction worker, for example, is made more productive and valuable by the inventors of the jackhammer and the steam shovel, and by the farsighted entrepreneurs who market and sell such tools to his employer. The work of an office clerk, as another example, is made more efficient by the men who invented copiers and fax machines. By applying human ingenuity to serve men's needs, the result is that physical labor is made less laborious and more productive.

Now, there is one crucial caveat to all this. There is a harmony of human interests in all respects except one: Force! When the gun comes out to force people against their will; to take by force or fraud the fruits of another's production of creative effort; to shackle, by force, the great creators and producers in order to make them milch-cows for the unproductive and the non-creative... when such a situation occurs, then no-one wins, and the 'harmony of human interests' is torn asunder. Such an existence really is the 'dog-eat-dog' situation of popular complaint, in which each of us is potentially a threat to each other. Our minds cannot owrk by compulsion, and if the fruits of productive work are subject to plunder, production will be meagre indeed.

The absence of initiatory force is the very pre-condition of a free society; in the absence of force, we have the opportunity to enjoy the very real fruits of freedom and the harmony of interests enjoyed by free men.

Main linked Articles: Cue Card Libertarianism - 'No man is an island' - Not PC
The gains from trade: understanding comparative advantage - LibertyGuide.Com
Desert Island Game
Ricardo explained by O'Rourke
Pyramid of ability and individual moral worth - Will Thomas
Time to celebrate man's mind - Frederic Hamber
Cue Card Libertarianism - Force - Not PC

Linked Books: Unrugged Individualism - David Kelly
Eat the Rich - PJ O'Rourke

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