TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Contra Occupiers, Profits Embody Justice

DollarsAccording to various Occupy Wall Street protesters, profits hurt people and constitute injustice. For example, an Orange County protester held a sign reading, “People Before Profits”; he told Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress, “I think people’s interests [should] always come first.” I interviewed a Zuccotti Park Occupier who said, “In terms of what I’m trying to accomplish and what I would want is a society that actually prioritizes human rights and the notion of social justice over profit.”

While such sentiments paint profit as the enemy of rights, justice, and people’s well-being, in fact profit in a capitalist system embodies all those things. Setting aside for a moment so-called “social justice,” far from undermining justice, protecting the right to profit in a free society is an instance of justice.

What is profit? In the broadest sense, a profit is a gain that comes from exerting personal effort or interacting with others. (“Profit” derives from the Latin term meaning “to make progress.”) If I plant tomato seeds and tend the ground, I profit by harvesting the tomatoes. A massage therapist profits by selling that service. Apple profits by trading computers and iPhones (and the services that come with them) for money.

In a free society, people interact by mutual consent, and thus all parties involved in a transaction typically expect to profit. A massage therapist profits by gaining the money, while I profit by gaining the massage. Apple’s consumers profit by acquiring the company’s devices; the company profits by being paid for them.

The profits of any free, non-fraudulent exchange are necessarily just. Consenting adults have the right to interact voluntarily with others, and each rationally seeks to gain in any exchange of goods or services. This right is part and parcel of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Sometimes people mistakenly anticipate a profit where none is forthcoming, but they have the right to pursue the possibility of profit.) Justice means giving others their due. In a free exchange, each person gets his due—as judged by his own mind on the terms he deems acceptable. A just society recognizes and protects each individual’s right to engage in such free exchanges, including lawful contracts that enable complex long-term trades, such as business contracts, sales agreements, insurance policies, and pension plans.

When some parties forcibly interfere with others’ right to voluntary exchange and thereby to profit, this is an act of injustice. If the government outlaws massage therapy, or bans terms of compensation agreeable to both parties, or prevents a computer company from charging what it sees fit for its product, or prevents a willing customer from buying it at that price—this unjustly prevents the parties from profiting by mutual agreement.

Nor can one justly profit by means of violating rights. A slaveholder “profits” only by chaining others to a job; the proper term for such a short-sighted gain is not profit but loot. An unscrupulous car salesman loots his customers by lying about the state of the car, thereby committing fraud and taking a customer’s money against his consent. A bank robber loots the bank and its customers, stealing their profits. In such cases the government properly intervenes in order to protect people’s rights and uphold justice.

Occupy Wall Street is right to complain about the bailouts of politically connected businesses. Such bailouts loot taxpayers and are therefore unjust.

Unfortunately, many Occupy Wall Street protesters call for “social justice,” which is a euphemism for more looting. True justice neither needs nor permits the adjective “social” before it. Justice necessarily applies in a social context (the need for justice never arises for a lone individual on a desert island.) While justice applies differently in different circumstances, the principle means the same fundamental thing in each: individuals getting what they deserve. Occupiers calling for “social justice” are calling for the use of force to interfere with the voluntary associations of business owners, customers, and employees—for example, through wage and price controls, nullification of loan contracts (e.g., mortgage and education), increased taxes on the so-called one percent, and other forced wealth transfers. “Social justice” is plain injustice.

Profits are good for people, which is why all rational people seek them. Justice is good for people, too, as it enables them to seek profits and forbids people and the government from getting in their way. If Occupiers care about people, they should change their mantra to “Profits and justice for everyone.” Or simply: “Capitalism.”


Image: Wikipedia Commons

Posted in: Business and Economics, Individual Rights and Law

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Don Marler

         Ayn Rand chose not to try to convert irrational persons such as the “Occupy Wallstreet protesters,” to be Objectivists. Instead, she chose to speak for years at Ford Hall Forum to an audience that consisted mainly of persons who admired her and her philosophy. The only time she spoke on liberal Phil Donohue’s show, the audience insulted her.
         Having listened to her at Ford Hall Forum on several occasions, I could see why she preferred to spend her time and energy sharing her thoughts with those who had chosen to study and live by her philosophy.
         Her protagonist, Howard Roark, in “The Fountainhead” didn’t spend his time trying to convert collectists to his way of thinking. He just did his work his way and befriended those who lived by similar values.
         Do you think that we sometimes spend too much time talking about people like Wallstreet Protestors and waste our energy when we could concentate on moving forward with our own lives and achieving our personal goals?  

  • Anonymous

    Do you think writing this defense of profit made Ari stop pursuing his personal values? 

    This is an ideological war. Ari’s a warrior, and I commend him for writing this piece which not only go after the Occupiers, but all those in the arena. 

  • Burgess Laughlin

    Deciding whether to become an activist is a personal decision — just as deciding whether to pay attention to one’s health is a personal decision. 

    If a someone decides to be an activist, he has an array of choices available: 

    - Donating to those who advocate vs. himself directly advocating?

    - Part-time vs. full-time?

    - Speaking or writing in public vs. working outside the public spotlight?

    - In-line with the subject of his beloved work (as when an architect fights against regulation of architecture) vs. in another field?

    - Audience — arming already convinced allies vs. fishing for potential allies who need only to hear objective ideas?

    - Type: philosophical, intellectual, or political?

    - Range: local, regional, national, or world-wide?

    - Subject matter: focusing mostly on errors or on the objective alternative or some combination of the two?

    In summary, there are many empty spots on the barricades in the fight for a better world. Every individual gets to chose and in a way that best fits his other personal goals.

  • Anonymous

    First, Don, your comments violate your own rule: you’re talking about Occupy Wall Street. Does that mean you’re not “moving forward with your own life and achieving your personal goals?”

    Second, your presumption that I’m trying to convert “irrational persons” is silly. Talking “about” OWS doesn’t mean I’m trying to convert OWS protesters. Apparently you have not noticed that the OWS message (such that it is) is being discussed widely in the culture; I’m writing for those who have heard the that message and aren’t sure how to answer it.