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We Are Not Promethean Gods

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Yesterday Pres. Obama pleaded with members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “Ask yourselves what you can do for America.  Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation” (“Obama Vows to ‘Knock Down’ Business Barriers,” Feb. 8).

The job of entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners and managers is to invest and to produce in ways that are most likely to yield the highest profit in the market.  Period.  By doing so, businesses follow the best available signals to guide them to promote the well-being of others.  The additional goals that Mr. Obama wants business people to pursue sound splendid when trumpeted in public speeches but, in practice, are far too nebulous to be workable.  No business person can possibly know enough to do consistently and successfully what Mr. Obama asks.

As on so many issues, Adam Smith’s wisdom remains relevant: “By pursuing his own interest he [the business person] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.  I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

Donald J. Boudreaux

UPDATE: My friend Peter Minowitz writes in response: “Here’s a minor riposte – Given your [DBx’s] dedication as a letter writer, you presumably think that meaningful benefits are routinely created by ‘those who affect[ed] to WRITE for the public good.’  Trying to promote the wealth of NATIONS, Smith too was a conspicuously public-spirited author (this also applies to TMS).”  To which I say only, Touche!  Good point.


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