Le Québécois Libre, February 15, 2012, No 297.
So you’ve decided that you want to make the world a better place. And admittedly, despite humanity’s unprecedented gains in wealth, knowledge, wellbeing, and liberty over the past two hundred years, poverty persists in many parts of the world, ignorance and superstition fill countless books and broadcasts, needless suffering abounds, and everywhere men and women are still in chains. You want to feed the hungry, school the benighted, treat the sick, and free the servile. Noble goals all, to be sure, but what to do first? Where to focus your efforts? What does the world need now?
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.
Love, Sweet Love
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.
There is another important distinction that helps to clarify the issue: the difference between duty and virtue. Whatever you may have learned from government schools or religious teachings, you have no duty to save the world, no duty even to make it a better place. This is no great loss, however, for the cold, grey hand of duty is a comparatively poor motivator in most cases. It breeds resentment and sucks the vitality out of existence. Happiness, in contrast, is a shining prize that feeds the spirit, a prize to be won daily and over the course of a lifetime through the exercise of virtue. And the kicker is that virtuous, happy, passionate people are precisely what the world needs.
Do What You Love, Freedom Will Follow
Even if you agree that you have a right to pursue your own happiness in a peaceful manner, you may still think the world would be better off if you sacrificed some of your happiness in order to work toward some other goal. Far be it from me to discourage you from pursuing a worthwhile goal if you want to pursue it. My purpose is rather to discourage you from pursuing a goal you don’t really want to pursue, a goal that will not make you happy.
If you sacrifice your happiness, even to further a goal that you value, you will squander your precious energy. Your unwelcome tasks will weigh on you, and you will feel depleted at the end of the day, and wake from sleep unrefreshed and unenthusiastic.
If, instead, you do what you love, you will have energy aplenty. You will tend to embrace your tasks, and you will feel good even when tired, and wake eager to greet the next challenge. Even if you spend your days in a manner that does not directly further the cause of liberty, as long as you do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, you contribute to making the world a better place through the positive sum game of voluntary exchange. You also set an example of the good life—a peaceful, productive, and happy life—that, if everyone simply emulated, would be sufficient to bring about a golden age overflowing with greater wealth, knowledge, wellbeing, and liberty for everyone.
There is one more indirect salutary effect that people who have come alive have on the world. In addition to benefiting others through voluntary exchange and through the productive and peaceful example they set, people who have come alive are not themselves easily ruled. They value their own freedom to follow their bliss, and will tend to guard it jealously, and so guard the freedom of others as well.
By all means, if you can directly further the cause of liberty in a way that makes you happy, I encourage you to do so. But don’t consign yourself to a life of misery because of some antiquated notion of duty to others. Instead, do what makes you come alive, and you will thereby contribute much to making the world a better place.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.