Perhaps a return to a gold currency standard in order to curb
governments’ power to print money and fuel speculative booms and busts
is the ticket. Or maybe you should do what you can to push for free
trade, particularly in agriculture, and greater labour mobility across
international and intra-national borders. Maybe ending wars and
refocusing military resources and personnel on defence instead of
offence is what is needed—and while we’re on the subject of war, ending
the disastrous war on drugs, too. Perhaps fighting for lower taxes and
simpler tax codes should be your priority, or fighting to simplify and
reduce business regulations. Or again, you might think ending
one-size-fits-all education and letting a thousand flowers bloom would
bring about the most good, or maybe opening health care to greater
competition and innovation.
Which of these goals should you devote your energy to accomplishing?
Which would best promote the cause of liberty and hence lead to greater
wealth, knowledge, and wellbeing for all? We could argue about it for
days and not come to a definitive answer, but fortunately, we don’t need
to agree. Indeed, as the above quotation suggests, to ask what the world
needs is in fact to ask the wrong question. The world needs a lot of
things, and any of the goals listed above is worth pursuing. But what
the world needs most of all is more people who have come alive.
But hang on a second. Isn’t it selfish to
spend your precious time and energy on what fills you with passion and
makes you feel most alive? And isn’t selfishness one of the root causes
of things like poverty, ignorance, suffering, and servility? Wouldn’t
the world be a better place if we all gave more thought to the needs of
our fellows—if, in other words, we were all a little less
selfish? And isn’t it therefore wrong, even perverse, to call on people
to be more selfish and claim that this is what the world needs?
The short answer to the first question is yes, it is selfish to concern
yourself with what makes you come alive. But this is a case in which the
short answer will not do. The problem is the persistent conflation of
two distinct notions: petty, short-sighted, and ultimately
self-destructive selfishness on the one hand; and expansive, rational,
enlightened self-interest on the other. The man who rips off his
clients, steals from his neighbours, cheats on his wife, indulges every
stray impulse, and betrays his own deepest values is not doing a very
good job of serving his own true interests. But the man who is honest in
business and friendship, who weighs the future consequences of his
actions and is true to his values will be more successful in the long
run, which is to say that he will have a better, happier life.
Happiness, in other words, is dependent on such virtues as honesty,
rationality, and integrity.