Spring 2009 -- Individual, objective liberty rights make possible a society based on the principle of trade. One basic kind of interaction would be banned: initiating force against others. Force could only be permitted to be used defensively against others who had already initiated it. In other words, all your interactions with others would respect their freedom to choose. Interactions would also aim to be of benefit all the parties involved.

Such a system would only be possible—and moral—if human interests did not fundamentally conflict. After all, if our interests conflicted, you could not seek your own benefit except through harming me, and vice versa. It would be self-sacrifice for the loser to accept trades in that circumstance. Objectivism holds that your own life is your ultimate value. Real self-sacrifice is what one should never do.  

So individual rights, and the principle of trade, depend upon the fact that there is, or can be, a harmony of interests among rational people. The harmony of interests is possible because the characteristically human means of gaining values is production. Human beings apply our reasoning minds to create and use tools, to discover natural laws, to invent social technologies (e.g., the “meet-up”), and so make the products we need. Today practically every product we use and every social arrangement we take part in is the result of a developed, complex process of invention and production.

That isn’t how things used to be. Before the rise of industrial capitalism, to seek wealth simply was to seek to rob others. If you wanted to live securely, you needed a strong fort or strong friends to fend off the enemies that would take your wealth and your life. Aristocrats ruled over serfs. Men were warriors. Women looked for powerful protectors. Wars of conquest swept society, fed by the riches the conquerors could rob. The Romans conquered Europe by robbing and enslaving their enemies. They were conquered in turn by barbarians hungry for loot. Leaping forward: Napoleon’s empire fed off the territory he conquered, and the English conquered India by making war pay. Now the English have abandoned their empire: it was too expensive to keep. And Napoleon ended up with nothing. Consider the United States today in Iraq: whatever the reasons for conquering and remaking Iraq, it has been no way to create wealth. Today we live as individuals—men and women. Our productivity depends, more than anything else, on our ability to use our minds, therefore it is education that has the most value.

Yet conflicts still abound in society. When you’re stuck in traffic, it’s perfectly clear that if all those other people hadn’t driven, you would be home already. Next time you look for a home, won’t you hope everyone else in the market will keep far away from the places you want? The last thing you want is a bidding war. In the current recession, whole retail chains are going bankrupt: their stockholders are ruined, but the going-out-of-business sales are fantastic!

To understand in what sense there is a harmony of interest despite these conflicts, we need to consider some deeper principles.

Reason

The harmony of interests only holds among people able and willing to live by reason. When suicidal, murderous holy warriors attack a hotel in the name of purity, there is a conflict, sure, but rationality sure isn’t in it. But unreason can be subtler, too. How about someone who becomes miserable out of envy, their hatred festering out of their belief that they could have been great, if only... (Fill in the blank)! If their sense of possibility isn’t grounded in their real abilities and the effort they expended, then unreason is at work again. Many conflicts arise because people flinch at seeing their own flaws, and defensively lash out at others. Again, these aren’t rational conflicts.

Freedom

A key point to bear in mind in considering conflicts we know of today is that we live in a mixed economy that also features encroachments on freedom of speech and religion. The fact that all our freedoms can be attacked through the political process pits us against our fellow citizens in a war of political pull. It makes us worry more than we should what our neighbors believe and how they will vote. The public school system, for example, makes every new schoolchild a liability to childless taxpayers. Zoning laws make every renovation job an opportunity to fight, and make locating a business into an ugly conflict among bureaucrats, local residents, business competitors, and the entrepreneur. So we have to look for interactions that are basically free, or where, at least, we can compare how well individual interests are served by freedom versus unfreedom.

Context

There are conflicts among reasonable, free people, too. But they aren’t fundamental. Consider the Olympics: there is only one gold medal in most events; not every entrant can have one. Or consider a romantic competition: if two women yearn for the same man, they can’t both bring home the prize. In all these cases, the context is important.

When you join a sports competition, or take part in any game, you decide to accept the rules and conflict involved. Would an Olympian rather have a world stage on which to perform and the satisfaction of challenging the best, or avoid competition altogether? Similarly, anyone who is looking for love can benefit from an open opportunity to meet a wide range of possible mates. It’s a risk in that situation that there may be some competition for love. But the range of choice makes it worth it. In any case, competition in love is overrated: the love worth having is a mutual recognition. It can’t be won or stolen.

The bottom line is that conflict is good for us, in context, when participating is to the benefit of everyone involved. That is a conflict framed within the principle of trade: voluntary, and beneficial. It’s a conflict, like economic competition generally, made possible by a deeper harmony of interests.

Harmony of interests, not goals

The harmony of interests exists not at the level of particular goals: we don’t often share particular aims like owning this house or that dress. It exists at the level of live-and-let-prosper. It is striking evidence for the harmony of interests that generally, the economic and political freedom of a country is strongly correlated with the longevity, professed happiness, and economic prosperity of its citizens. This regularity exists because the rich generally earn their wealth, they don’t take it from the poor. That some are rich, does not keep the poor from becoming rich, too. The sources of happiness for humans—such as security, material well-being, health, meaningful social bonds, virtuous living, and productive engagement with projects and values—can more easily be produced than stolen. Some, indeed, only exist if produced—friendship and virtue are examples.

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About The Author:

Author: William Thomas
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.

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