Menu
Home > Books > Chapter 6

Chapter 6
Adam Smith and the Principle of Laissez Faire

Wealth is traditionally identified with tangible property — land, cattle, and other material possessions — with money, and with intangible “goods” such as patents and copyrights. Is a person wealthy to the extent that he has those things? No, not unless he values them. Value, for each person, is a subjective consideration. Economists, however, treat it as an objective truth, and consider themselves to be working with a science as exact as physics or chemistry. (Does not everyone with the slightest claim to methodology today clamber onto the bandwagon of modern science?) Economists equate value with cost — the cost of production and distribution, of advertising, and of other objective factors — as determining the price of things. Price, to them, equals value.

Viewed subjectively, however, price has little to do with value. Value is the worth we personally place on a thing. Our view of wealth may be very different from that of an economist. In this chapter I propose to take the subjective view, and I think you may end up agreeing that this one is more valid for someone who is concerned, not with how to become rich in terms of saleable possessions, but in terms of what one himself really values.

So far, I’ve been submitting traditional explanations for things, whether cosmic or mundane, to a re-evaluation based on common sense, and on a view that is more meaningful from a human perspective. For whereas the economists’ explanations may be important for people whose concerns are more global, they may be useless for those whose interest lies in finding personal fulfillment, or for that matter for people with a broader spectrum of values than the concern for mere property.

Economists, of course, predicate their thinking on the assumption that, since a certain amount of material wealth is desirable, more of it is even more desirable. Material wealth, however, becomes highly undesirable once a person realizes that a surfeit of it results not in freedom, but in bondage. Why, indeed, should anyone join the stampede toward surfeit and suffering, if a sane alternative for attaining happiness exists, especially if that alternative doesn’t mean self-deprivation? Why follow a road for no other reason than the fact that others travel it? Why not, instead, go by a more scenic route?

My concern in these pages has not been with mechanisms, but with meaning — meaning as it applies to us as human beings. From an economist’s standpoint, it is pricing that is of interest, not values. The subject is extraordinarily complex, and becomes increasingly so the deeper one delves into it. To understand the subject fully may be impossible, for it soars into the reaches of higher mathematics where abstruse theory drifts off into unprovable conclusions and may lead in virtually any direction one fancies. That complexity is only technical, however. From a human point of view, the situation is relatively simple.

Clear light on the subject is needed, however, to illuminate it. One difficulty with economic theory is the notorious unreliability of its predictions.

A friend of mine in Australia, a successful financier, told me about a venture he’d once launched. After the first year, he said, the business showed a deficit. His accountants explained to him the reasons why.

“Could you have told me that at the beginning of the year?” he inquired. They admitted they could not have. “So,” he said in conclusion, “I fired the lot of them. From that time on I let myself be guided by my own common sense, and the business flourished.” He confessed he’d been overwhelmed, initially, by the array of charts, statistics, and theories those accountants had presented for his study.

Value represents for each of us that which we ourselves want in life. Simple enough, surely! If nobody wanted gold, the general disinterest would deprive gold of its value. A Van Gogh painting is valuable to the extent that people give it value. Their desire is what determines its price. If no one wanted it, it would be no more valuable than any piece of damaged canvas of comparable size.

Next to desirability as a criterion of wealth is the ease or difficulty we’d have in obtaining what we want. Air, for example, though a life necessity, is available everywhere; therefore we don’t attach great value to it. Were it suddenly to become scarce, however, it would be worth up to everything we possess. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” on the other hand, is not even available in the original. Were it for sale, some people would desire it so greatly that its monetary value, for them, would be enormous.

If an object is desirable, but can be obtained only at the effort, let us say, of traversing vast deserts, scaling high mountains, and braving stormy seas, it would have far more value for us than if it could be bought at the local supermarket.

Total lack of availability would deprive it of its appeal. Many other things, besides, might lose their appeal if the trouble of obtaining them were too great. The important thing, in this case, is to keep your desires within the bounds of your capabilities. Those stormy seas, for instance, might appear simply too great an obstacle when added to the difficulty of crossing vast deserts and scaling high mountains. (A young swain comes to mind who wrote to his beloved saying that, for her, he’d willingly brave deserts, high mountains, and stormy seas. In a short postscript, he added, “I’ll visit you next Saturday, if it isn’t raining.”)

Adam Smith wrote that the value of a thing is determined by the effort that went into its production. “Labour alone,” he stated, “never varying in its own value, is alone the ultimate and real standard by which the value of all commodities can at all times and places be estimated and compared. It is their real price; money is their nominal price only.” Earlier, we saw that Karl Marx offered the same criterion. What both of those men said is no doubt true when applied, as they intended, to factory workers. They themselves allowed for differences of skill and speed in one’s work. As we pointed out earlier, however, the amount of time that goes into something complex like building a home is by no means the only criterion of its value. Finally it comes down to the care and intelligence that went into designing and constructing the home, not merely to the labor that went into building it. Other criteria are important also. “Demand” — the term economists use — depends also on such factors as appearance, design, location, and the neighborhood around the home. Value, from the point of view of demand, is entirely subjective. Some people would pay large sums of money for a pair of shoes worn by a famous golfer when winning a major championship. The trophy would be meaningless to anyone who had no interest in golf.

Money is wealth only to the extent that it can be used in exchange for the things one wants. It is useless to an Eskimo, for example, in the snowy wastes he inhabits, for nothing exists around him for sale. And it is useless to someone who doesn’t want what can be exchanged for money.

Several years ago I went on vacation to a Latin American country. On my return to America, the customs officer glanced at my declaration on the form and exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! Seventeen cents! Is that really all you spent?” We had a good laugh. I’d bought nothing that whole week but a pocket comb. What did it matter to me what the prices were, since I’d seen nothing there that I wanted?

Local manufacturers might have tried to whet my appetite with advertisements for their products. That is why advertisers are hired: both to tell people that the product exists and to give the product itself an aura of attractiveness. Advertising is a service to people if it informs them of an object’s availability. It is arguably amoral, however, if its sole purpose is to inflame people’s desire for it. Indeed, the desire for unnecessary “necessities” is the silken cord that binds modern civilization to the wheel of perennial dissatisfaction.

In Panama some years ago, the United Food Company was distressed because its women workers remained at their jobs only two months a year. During the other months they lived on their earnings. Then a bright lad in the company had an inspiration: Why not send every woman a Sears Roebuck catalogue? The catalogues were sent, and the problem ceased: The women returned to work, and remained there uncomplainingly the whole year around.

Adam Smith’s analysis of value must be considered in the context of one of his purposes, which was to protect the factory worker from selfish employers who were interested only in boosting their profits, and therefore in keeping the wages as low as possible while they squeezed all the work out of their employee that they could. Given the circumstances, the quality of the work was probably, as Adam Smith said, fairly uniform. It would be a mistake, he argued, to value such work at no more than the cost of slave labor.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, cannot be so easily exonerated, for he placed supreme importance on labor itself, regardless of any thought and care that goes into designing and making a product. His system was a disaster for society, for it enforced conformity to a mindlessly controlled system, run by people as indifferent to the quality of the work as were the workers themselves. In Russia many years ago, a Western visitor was taken around a factory where he found what looked like evidence at last of real efficiency. It was a factory that made signs, and its products were stacked everywhere. He asked his guide, “What do those signs say?” Her answer was, “They say, ‘Out of order.’”

It has been wisely said that a society is known by the people it considers great. The heroes of Marxist society are those men and women with the least commitment to anybody’s welfare. Their service is to “the system.” Some of those “heroes” butchered people by the thousands to achieve their envied status.

Adam Smith did at least try to uplift society materially, by emphasizing free enterprise. The “upliftment” Marx offered was an outright deception. He hailed as the nation’s best citizens those who, in other societies, have usually attracted the least admiration. Such people were, he said, the true aristocrats. This appellation was merely theoretical. The power it implied was that of the mob.

Intelligent people are more and more coming to realize that wealth is not a thing so much as a manifestation of well-directed energy. It is not the result only of muscular labor, but of thought, of sensitive appreciation for beauty, of concern for usefulness, and, if you will, of love. If one were to lose everything materially, but still possess his creativity, he might justifiably claim to be richer than another who had inherited millions, but lacked the creativity to put his money to productive use. Wealth that is too easily acquired might even be placed in quotation marks, for it represents capital with little likelihood of further gain. In time, it will dwindle away. Interestingly in this context, I am told (whether rightly or not I don’t know) that the Vanderbilt family, once mighty in the world of finance, has lost all its wealth.

Adam Smith’s general thesis was that every human being is motivated primarily by self-interest. A nation’s prosperity, he said, will soar if it gives people the freedom to improve their own lot. “It is not,” he wrote, “from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” Passages like this caused an outcry among soi-disant champions of morality, though in fact Smith had simply stated an obvious truth. He was comparing self-interest to false morality, which bases generosity and benevolence entirely on self-denial. Smith was right, of course. Morality, as people usually define it, is hypocrisy. No one will really help another if he expects only, in doing so, to become miserable. Self-sacrifice for others should be for the sake of a greater good. If it benefits oneself also, if only in terms of inner satisfaction, it is no sacrifice. Smith erred only, as many self-styled moralists have done, by not humanizing his subject enough. He didn’t focus with sufficient clarity on the people’s actual needs, as individuals.

He gave us examples — the butcher, the brewer, the baker — to support his argument. What he didn’t do was give us human beings: He gave us two-dimensional tradesmen. It might have helped had he given those tradesmen names, personalities, families.

Let us make up for this “sin of omission.” We’ll name the baker, William — surname, Baker. And we’ll assume the presence of another one in town, whom we’ll name Joe — surname, Crumpet. Let us be even more specific. William concentrates only on the advantages accruing to himself while he sells bread, whereas Joe, though fully aware that he is earning a living, has other values besides. He greets you with a smile, treats you as a friend, asks after your family, hopes that you enjoy his baked goods, perhaps solicits your advice on how to improve them.

Let us now assume — it is probably the case anyway — that William wears a perennially grim expression, that he has poor digestion, and is always bitter about something. Joe, on the other hand, is warm-hearted, healthy, and happy. Isn’t it likely that, quite apart from economic considerations — their products bear more or less the same prices — you’ll shop at Joe’s, and shun William as a bad omen?

Adam Smith, in discussing economics, discounted more human considerations such as benevolence because he considered these to lie outside the circle he’d drawn. He wanted to convince his readers that he, too, was a scientist. Whence, however, that word, benevolence? Whence other words like it, such as kindness, sympathy, compassion, and good will? These must have some meaning. If they haven’t any for the economist, perhaps the fault lies in the way he approaches his science.

Let us imagine a final possibility: What if William — not Joe, mind you, for whom we have a natural liking, but William, for whom we have little — is stricken by tragedy? His home may have burned down, or his only child just died. Wouldn’t you rush to bring him and his family comfort and assistance, offering them money, food, clothing, sympathy? Financial considerations wouldn’t enter the picture. Even your personal feelings for him, which have been at best tepid, would pale to insignificance before his great loss.

Adam Smith, being an economist, ignored such considerations as irrelevant. Economic constructs, however, if kept apart from human realities, are no better than wax images. They may be artful, but they lack life. Being only wax, moreover, they melt under the heat of scrutiny and become shapeless. If there is any subject that affects our lives daily, it is just this one, economics, which Smith separated so carefully from the life we actually live. We ought to give highest economic consideration to human values: not as statistics, merely, but for their meaning to us as individuals. We ought to see people, too, in terms of the awareness they project. This is their primary reality, for us.

Smith was right in saying that every human being is motivated primarily by self-interest. What he missed, since he was concentrating on mechanisms, was the simple fact that self-interest is directional: leading inward toward greater self-absorption, or outward, toward greater self-expansion. In the first case, it shrinks a person’s awareness inward upon himself. The result is slowly decreasing personal satisfaction and happiness. In the second case it expands one’s consciousness. The result is ever-increasing personal contentment and fulfillment.

Self-interest need not be selfish. In itself, it is only self-awareness, which has a natural impulse toward expansion. In expansion it finds fulfillment. Contractiveness, on the contrary, which squeezes one’s self-identity, brings him increasing frustration and disappointment.

True expansion of self-identity comes not with an increasing number of possessions, nor with power over greater numbers of people, but with growing sympathy and understanding. Such expansion means broadening one’s identity with others, including their needs in one’s own needs instead of trying to force everything and everybody into an orbit around one’s own little ego.

This atom, the ego, is obliged of its own nature to view everything filtered through its self-awareness. This awareness begins small, like an atom drifting alone in space. If the atom happens to collide with another, their united gravity, though still tiny, increases. Gradually, other atoms join them, and their gravity field slowly increases, until finally great clouds of atoms are drawn to them even from millions of miles away.

Thus too, as the ego acquires experiences, develops its own attitudes, and acquires new characteristics, it develops a field of energy comparable to gravity — call it magnetism — attracting to itself increasing understanding, power, and sensitive awareness.

In the case of atoms, when they are united in sufficient numbers a star is born. Similarly, as people increase their awareness and intelligence, their “magnetism” (so called) increases until, like stars in the firmament of humanity, they radiate light to everyone they meet.

Sometimes in the vastness of space a star implodes, to become what is known in astronomy as a black hole, the density of which is so enormous that not even light escapes it. Egoic self-involvement, similarly — the opposite of expansive self-interest — is implosive. Its psychological density can become extreme. Pride and selfishness shrink a person’s consciousness until, figuratively speaking, in his total self-absorption no radiance escapes him.

Such is the direction of development for the William Bakers of this world, though few of them ever become so psychologically imploded as to deserve comparison to black holes. The Joe Crumpets, on the other hand, radiate light outward to others. Like stars, their sympathies shine expansively. They enjoy sharing, and have no wish to draw possessively to themselves. Self-interest, for both the Crumpets and the Bakers, is a reality, but the Crumpets are wise enough to realize that fulfillment comes from sharing with others, not by absorbing their energy and happiness for their own gain.

Enlightened self-interest is far from contradicting traditional ethics. Indeed, it is the only true basis for ethics there is. Unenlightened self-interest, on the other hand, goes against human nature itself. In drawing happiness inward to itself it limits its horizons, finally to the point of self-suffocation.

In saying, “I appreciate other people’s needs and interests, as I do my own; I appreciate their friendship; I appreciate the realities they share with me,” one places himself in harmony with others and with nature’s ways. Self-expansion is self-ennobling. Self-ennoblement, in return, is self-expansive. How different, this perception of nobility, from the conceptions of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Machiavelli! To Adam Smith, nobility meant wealth. To Marx, genuine aristocracy was a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” To Machiavelli, nobility meant the power wielded by a ruler. But true nobility is dominion of another kind. It expands one’s self-interest to a sense of identity with others. Originally, the term aristocrat was equated with nobility of character. It had little or nothing to do with property or monetary wealth.

In ancient India, the ruling class were the kshatriyas, or “warriors,” a symbolic name which signified willingness to sacrifice their own lives for their countrymen. Over centuries this ideal was lost, to the point where aristocracy came to signify a merely hereditary privilege. Wealthy landowners and military leaders claimed the right to be served, and never thought in terms of serving others.

Social distinction in Western countries, though bestowed primarily on the wealthy, was sometimes given also to those who were well educated and who possessed at least a veneer of refinement. This was the sole remaining instance of a previously common perception that respect is due above all to those who deserve it personally. In truth, there have always been peasants who were nobler by nature than most so-called aristocrats. In other words, there has always been a true, as opposed to a false, conventional, nobility. True nobility is based on personal worth. False nobility is based on the “counterfeit” value of worldly power and a large bank account.

Democracy is an attempt to rectify aristocratic abuses by claiming that everyone is an aristocrat. Not many people deserve that high rank, of course, except in the latent potential everyone has in his humanity. To pretend that everyone is noble is to robe the veriest ditch-digger in a silk robe of imaginary majesty. Dull minds are fit only for manual labor; they express human potential in its lowest form. It is not from such people that one expects the creative spirit needed for progress. Dullards have very little sense of responsibility to others, and still less to society as a whole. For this reason alone, ditch-diggers and the like are not worthy of the encomiums lavished on them by Karl Marx. Demagogues assure people, especially those who don’t care to think for themselves, “You’re as good as the best!” And what is the result? As their sense of self-worth grows, bloated by flattery, true nobility is mocked at as artificial and no longer worth emulating; rather, people suspect it doesn’t even exist. Thus, nobility is equated with mediocre intelligence and with “people power,” and anyone even moderately thoughtful is denounced as a parasite.

I recall in the 1940s, as a delayed echo from the “thirties,” how intellectuals would affect “earthy” language and attitudes to impress others with their own “basic realism.” This was a pose, merely. In the 1950s, beatnik poets with masters degrees in literature would affect bad grammar so as not to be mistaken for dreamers whose heads were in the clouds. During the hippie movement of the 1960s and ’70s, intellectuals adopted a whole new language to show that they were not “highfalutin’,” parasitic, or unreal. Poses, all, in a sorry attempt to show that they were “as real, man,” as your local ditch-digger, and capable of being quite as grubby as he after his hard day’s work. Thank you, Karl Marx. You’ve given mankind a new goal to strive for: mindless, heedless, gut-centered stupidity, with the primal force of raw emotion that Tennessee Williams expressed with such grunting eloquence in his plays.

Unless this way of thinking is corrected, it will cause the downfall of democracy itself. For what will ensue, once the majority are invited to arbitrate everything including moral issues, is that emotions will come to dominate the public’s consciousness. By emotions I mean the outraged denunciation of anything that doesn’t meet with mass approval; loud acclamation for every passing fad; refusal to listen to any point of view different from one’s own; and support for anything demanded by “the people.” Wisdom itself becomes redefined to signify whatever reflects the “will of the people.”

Elections determined by considerations such as these cannot fail, in time, to bring economic disintegration, as candidates realize there is no point in being over-scrupulous in the promises they make. “Everyone,” they assure their electorate, “will have whatever he or she desires. You all deserve the best!” The ensuing “benefits” are, of course, funded by tax money, which in turn is filtered through the sieve of ever-expanding governmental control. In the process, the costs add up. And whence comes all that money? Initially — one suspects — from many who never voted for those “representatives” in the first place.

When the need for tax money exceeds people’s willingness to be taxed, a solution is ready to hand: Increase the money supply! Monetary inflation destroys, ultimately, the value of money itself. This is called “hidden taxation.”

What occurs is that government-guaranteed security becomes the general goal, in time. People prefer it to personal integrity. The government, in trying to give people everything they want, robs them of their freedoms. For the larger a government is, and the greater the people’s sense of security under its protection, the more their liberty is lost altogether.

The larger a government, moreover, the less the prosperity a nation creates. For bureaucrats, generally speaking, are not competent businessmen. People with business skills are attracted to the private sector, where creativity is prized.

An example of the business ineptitude of governments is evident in the U.S. Post Office. Many years ago, first-class postage stamps cost only three cents. Today, they cost thirty-four. The ostensible goal of this large price increase — 80%, adjusted for inflation — is improved efficiency. Accompanying the rise in the cost of stamps, however, has been an actual decline in efficiency.

Many years ago I wrote to the U.S. Post Office in Washington D.C. to complain of the glue they were using on their air letter forms. “I lick the flap,” I said, “but it won’t seal. The moment the paper dries, it comes unstuck.” Now, commercial envelopes, available in stationery stores and markets everywhere, have never posed this problem. Couldn’t the government have learned this elementary lesson from private industry? The reply I received told me that this idea hadn’t occurred to them. “We are aware of the problem you mention,” the letter assured me, “and are experimenting with different glues. We confidently expect to have the matter resolved before long.” Has the problem ever been solved? I don’t know. Nowadays, I use e-mail.

I don’t think an exhaustive study of various types of government, and of possible solutions to the problems connected with creeping bureaucracy, would accomplish anything positive. I suspect the problem can’t be solved, at least not given present realities.

Democracy was established because people had grown fed up with oligarchy (rule by a few) and wanted freedom. Freedom, however, cannot survive if people decide they’d rather be secure. Democracy, in this case, eventually becomes replaced again by oligarchy, and the cycle continues indefinitely.

Human nature being what it is, it is doubtful whether any system will provide a permanent solution. Systems can’t ensure anything that isn’t backed by the will of the people. The best system imaginable cannot but fail, if those living under it are not interested in making it work. And the worst system will somehow totter along if its citizens have that will. It isn’t that good systems aren’t worthwhile, but only that they are accompanied by no guarantees.

Consider Adam Smith’s argument for free enterprise. Yes, it ought to work. No controlled economy, certainly, has ever shown, or ever could show, itself capable of producing wealth. Free enterprise, in which everyone is at liberty to promote his own well-being, is the only system so far that shows any promise. Does this mean it is perfect? Far from it!

The greatest problem with free enterprise is that large, wealthy, powerful companies are able to use their power to suppress competition. Let us say someone creates a new product, and forms a company to manufacture and sell it. What happens next? An already-established, already-wealthy, already-powerful corporation produces a similar product, and sells it at a loss with the sole intention of driving the “little guy” out of business. What is the poor fellow to do?

People nowadays run to “Big Daddy,” or “Big Brother” — in other words, they seek government intervention, urging Congress to pass a law that will make unfair practices like this impossible. At first, government interference looks good. It is only a stopgap measure, however. Government interference grows, as similar issues arise. Its largeness fans the legislators’ sense of self-importance, which in turn develops in them a certain feeling of kinship with bigness everywhere. Big government, by the very nature of things, ends up favoring big corporations, even though its original raison d’être was concern for the “little guy.” Meanwhile, things reach a point, eventually, where new companies can barely open their doors to do business after they’ve complied with all the fussy regulations. For when they’ve finally satisfied those official requirements, they find they have little left actually to run their business!

Are there possible alternatives? Here’s a suggestion: Instead of running to “Big Daddy” for help, why not diversify what you sell? If competition undercuts a single product, the business may survive long enough on other resources for its competitors to tire of the game, and let the little fellow have his profits after all.

Whether any specific “little guy” finds this suggestion feasible, it may at least inspire him to try to develop “solution-consciousness,” and to study the possibilities for other answers. In time he may find that there are many feasible alternatives. Every viable alternative will re-emphasize the worth, incentive, and capabilities of the individual. A spirit of self-reliance will automatically discourage the practice — almost a conditioned reflex by now — of running to “Big Daddy” for help. Here, in fact, we arrive at a new concept of wealth, one very different from what Adam Smith proposed in The Wealth of Nations.

What is wealth, really? A person has it in proportion to what he possesses that he himself values. He is not wealthy in proportion merely to other people’s envy of him, except perhaps to the extent that he values that envy and the shallow importance he imagines it gives him.

Wealth should not be considered in terms of what other people find desirable. It should be defined in terms of one’s own desires, and one’s own values. Having established these values, a person should live by them faithfully.

Food, clothing, shelter: These are universal needs. If a person has them, and desires nothing more, he is already wealthy. Beyond that, the struggle for wealth is arduous and never-ending. To a great extent, it is a useless quest for non-essentials, and leaves one maimed in spirit if not in limb; weary, disillusioned, and increasingly unhappy. And what lesson is learned from it at last? that it has all been for nothing! Everything, in the end, must be abandoned.

People’s concept of wealth is focused far too narrowly on what others think of them, from a desire for their envy. When that envy is desired, what one really wants is others’ unhappiness compared to his own. How can so ignoble a desire fail to create enemies? The more enemies one has, the more one feels the need to protect himself, to be forever wary and fearful.

Appreciation for the happiness of others, on the other hand, wins their friendly appreciation in return. It makes friends of them. A person surrounded by friends is relaxed in the knowledge that they will support him in his need. As his identity expands beyond the narrow confines of selfhood and self-preoccupation, he finds happiness in himself. Self-interest is self-fulfilling if it is directed outward to embrace others as part of one’s own reality. When self-interest contracts inward, however, separating itself from others and from life, it produces, as we have seen, inner suffering. The worst disease of modern times is a surfeit of the wrong kind of wealth: attachment to an ever-increasing number of possessions. These become obsessions, eventually to possess us in return.

Life, for most people, is a treadmill. There is no end to the weary trudge so long as one’s desires are centered in dreams of self-aggrandizement. If there is a better way, it can be found not in grandiose schemes for world betterment, but in a search for personal fulfillment. Once the right way to this fulfillment is found, its benefits become obvious. The lesson will spread naturally, by example. Those grandiose schemes for social betterment are like splashes of rose water onto a muddy pond: The fragrance is nullified immediately by the stench of ambition and selfish desires. The way to true fulfillment lies in expanding, not in contracting, one’s sympathies. A person should expand his interest in life and his concern for others until he is able to declare, “Self-interest, rightly understood, is the essence of true wisdom.”

If you decide to change your life’s patterns, and if experience shows you that this has been a good decision, others will be inspired to change themselves as you did. The change — yours, and then theirs — must be voluntary. It must not be embraced for the vague sake of “humanity,” nor to please anyone else. Indeed, it would be a mistake to think that because any specific idea is good it must therefore be universally adopted. One system for all may be feasible for colonies of ants, but it won’t work for human beings. Humanity is too complex for any one person, or even a few people, to solve all its problems. Do your best, instead, to shine in the little space you’ve been allotted. Inspire others also, as you are able, to develop their own light. But don’t presume to tell anyone how to shine. And don’t expect anyone merely to reflect your own light. The best thing you can do for “humanity” is to encourage a few others toward their own self-development.

Be noble in the true sense, then! To own land will not make you so. Riches won’t do it. People’s envy will not enhance your real worth. Seek wealth in faithfulness to your own ideals. Be true, first of all, to your own happiness. Why honor other people’s definition of wealth? Why follow the flock, while the sheep dog, public opinion, barks at your heels to keep you in line?

The best posture to assume is to stand on your own two feet! And what is the best attitude? To turn to new advantage the common question, “What’s in it for me?” by asking, “What will truly promote my own happiness?” Meanwhile, what is all that barking about? Isn’t the sheep dog only telling you, “Don’t look for happiness! Be like everyone else. See what fun they’re having, snatching and grabbing everything they can from one another!”

Community is a basic human need. The question when seeking it should be, “With whom shall I mix?” Crucial to the answer is another question: “Why these people, particularly?” Most people see no urgency in this last question. Yet they ought to. Usually, the “where, who, and why” of community is determined by such superficial considerations as nearness to one’s work, social prestige, schooling for the children, and shopping convenience. Yet people, too, are important to us — for themselves, and for the influence they have on our lives.

From birth onward we are thrust among other people. We depend on them for our strength, knowledge, emotional support, experience, and wisdom. And we need, for our own mental, moral, and spiritual development, to be able to offer them support in return. Such, realistically speaking, is the Social Contract, toward which the philosophers Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were reaching. They, however, thought in terms of people’s relationship to their governments, not of their responsibility to themselves and to one another. A tacit admission of interdependence exists between all members of a society. It is the true benefit of civilization.

Why continue plodding numbly down the same worn lane, once you’ve seen that life is not giving you what you hoped for? Why not seek companions from whom you might gain greater satisfaction than the mere convenience of having company? Indeed, why not seek others for their compatibility with your own higher aspirations?

People do not necessarily achieve wisdom with age. Often, all they achieve is girth and increased foolishness. Whole societies sometimes err in basic ways. A person who wants to improve his life meaningfully must struggle uphill to realize that desire, against countless descending influences. Why not augment your strength by associating with people who share your goals in life?

One reason people need one another is that they dread the yawning emptiness in themselves. They are lonely, and depend, consequently, on outer stimulation. Strange to say, they fear even to be inspired, lest inspiration force them to think deeply! They seek community with others as a way of escape.

Sooner or later, however, they will have to face the ultimate reality: their own selves. Why waste a whole lifetime? Why not seek out friends in whose company you can find challenge and upliftment? — companions who can reinforce the potential you know exists in yourself. Only such people can be your true friends. Others are mere “fillers”!

Think, finally, what it would mean to bring unity to your life. Job, friends, home, church, school, recreation: all in one place. This is what a well-formed community would offer. Instead of scattering the energy you devote to these pursuits, bring a clear focus to your life. Modern life, lacking this focus, has become fragmented. Bestowing no inner peace, it creates a spirit of restlessness and deep unhappiness.

Small communities, in which people live together for their own and for one another’s true fulfillment, are surely a goal worth striving toward for everyone anxious to find a solution to life’s problems.

Next

Chapter 7: Communities and Social Responsibility