Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ignorant Billionaire Fashions Noose

Karl Marx once said, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” Bill Gates has been selling long stretches of that rope lately. In his speech today at the World Economic Forum, a gathering of leading businessmen, politicians and aid officials, Bill Gates said, “We have to find a way to make the aspects of capitalism that serve wealthier people serve poorer people as well.” He went on to exhort fellow business leaders to devote their personal time and energy to finding ways of helping the poor.

Admittedly, Gates calls on executives to serve “a twin mission” of “making profits” while simultaneously “improving the lives of those who don’t benefit from market forces.” Just how businessmen are to make profits in regions, such as the Third World, that have essentially outlawed market forces is not explained.

Gates’ premise in these statements is that capitalism serves only the rich. Moreover, capitalism, on its own, is incapable of benefiting the poor.

This premise is dangerously wrong. A clear-headed reading of economic history, a clear understanding of economic science and, most importantly, a proper understanding of philosophy, will prove the correct point. Economic history tells us that capitalism is the only system that radically lifted the standard of living of the poor, such that today’s poor in Western, industrialized, semi-capitalistic countries are far wealthier than even the rich of the Middle Ages or ancient times. Their lifespans have more than doubled, they have comforts such as air conditioning and heat and entertainments such as television and the Internet that no one could have imagined in ancient times. These advances did not materialize out of thin air. Rather, they were the result of capitalists who made billions by inventing and selling the life-enhancing and labor-saving devices that improved human lives, such as vaccines, mass-produced automobiles and food, and electricity. High on this list is the benefit of mass-scale, low-cost computing that Bill Gates himself helped to pioneer.

Economics tells us that all wealth must be created by profit-seeking businessmen, or at the very least by self-interested individuals pursuing their own benefit. Without profits, businessmen lack both the incentive and the means to create. Factories are not built out of thin air, nor are salaries paid out of thin air. The accumulated capital borne of profits pays for the creation of factories and the goods those factories produce.

Bill Gates is also ignorant of philosophy. Philosophy teaches us that certain conditions are required for men to exert the effort required to produce goods. Specifically, production depends on having secure property rights, which means the right to make an unlimited profit. Together, philosophy and economics teach us that one man’s gain is another man’s gain, if everyone deals with each other through the principle of trade. This means that no one can use force to steal the wealth of another. Underpinning the right to property and the principle of trade is every person’s right to his own life, which means the right to use his own mind to produce the things he needs, without interference from others.

Bill Gates is not explicitly calling for stealing the wealth of the rich in order to give it to the poor. He hopes, somehow, that businessmen can serve “a twin mission” of “making profits” while simultaneously “improving the lives of those who don’t benefit from market forces.” But isn’t that what businessmen already do today, at least to the degree to which countries respect property rights and allow them to earn a profit?

What Bill Gates is calling for, without explicitly naming it, is for businessmen to give away their wealth and personal energy the way he has to corrupt Third World countries where it is all but impossible to earn a profit. Where businessmen can serve the twin masters of making a profit and helping the poor, they are doing it already. They do it simply by selling their goods for a profit. Isn’t that what Coca-Cola or McDonald’s or Microsoft (to name three products widely enjoyed by both the poor and rich in Western societies) are already doing in Europe, the United States and Japan?

Capitalists are not selling products in Africa because they are subject to the arbitrary vagaries of dictatorial governments that will steal their wealth at every opportunity. They will steal their wealth through arbitrary and confiscatory taxation, nationalizations, inflation and, endemic throughout the Third World, Mafia-style extortion and bribery demanded to do business. Property rights are an unheard-of concept in the Third World. They are violated every day, egregiously, with one consistent result: massive poverty and frequent episodes of death due to disease, starvation and mass murder.

The only cure for all this is one thing: capitalism. But capitalism is what Bill Gates is setting out to destroy whether he intended to or not. Bill Gates is destroying capitalism by smearing it with the Marxist falsehood that it only serves the rich and does not help the poor. Bill Gates cited a laundry list of books that have influenced him, some of which are quite good, such as the writings of the economists Adam Smith, Julian Simon and Hernando de Soto. However, the one author who best explains the roots of capitalism, and therefore the roots of prosperity, is the one not mentioned: philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand. I would commend to him, at a minimum, her novel Atlas Shrugged, and her collection of essays, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, if he wishes to learn what it truly takes for individuals and societies to become wealthy.

What Bill Gates doesn’t get is that wealth is only created through the productive efforts of businessmen. Businessmen and everyone who benefits from their products – i.e., all of us -- need capitalism, the system based on the recognition of the right to property and its root, a man’s right to his own life. Bill Gates just doesn’t get it, and the world is poorer as a result.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Bush Bulbs

Back after a holiday hiatus, I will comment on Bush Bulbs. Hat tip to Gus Van Horn for coining the phrase to refer to the anything-but-incandescent bulbs that we must legally use after incandescent bulbs become illegal in 2014 under the energy bill just signed by President Bush.

I will leave aside reference to the utter lack of moral principle that Bush, a man who at one time opposed the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, displays now that he embraces the environmentalist agenda and enacts legislation that begins to make our lives just a little bit (at first) more nasty, brutish and short.

I will not dwell on the violation of my property rights, my freedom to spend my money as I want to on the things that I value, that is represented by Bush Bulbs.

I will mention just how lousy these bulbs are.

They do not work in dimmer fixtures, which I recently installed throughout my apartment.

They do not turn on quickly.

Their spiral shape is ugly.

Their light is cold and disturbing, reminding me of a sterile office. This is not the feeling I want when I am in my home.

They are extremely expensive.

Their light flickers.

It causes headaches in some people.

The bottom line is that I don't want them.

I tried them once, way before legislation was passed to make them obligatory. That is when I discovered most of these unpleasant characteristics. I am not alone in my opinion, as evidenced by their paltry market share.

But, even if everything about them was great, what is most disturbing about Bush Bulbs is that I am forced to use them.

It is in a shower of small infringements of my freedom such as this one that I will find myself one day drowning in a society that is not free. The American Revolution was fought over stamp taxes and tea duties. But was it really? Our forefathers understood that a government that has the power to dictate even the smallest part of our lives has the power to direct all of our lives.

Bush Bulbs mean not just lights out for incandescent bulbs. Bush Bulbs mean lights out for freedom.