Naked Self-Interest

by Steven Hill

"A free enterprise exchange economy --what we have been calling competitive capitalism... consists of a number of independent households -- a collection of Robinson Crusoes, as it were...Since the household always has the alternative of producing dire ctly for itself, it need not enter into any exchange unless it benefits from it. Hence, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit from it. Co-operation is thereby achieved without coercion." -- Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

The following is a true story.

There was a time-- ancient history-- when a household, a family, produced their own food, their own clothes, manufactures and housewares, their own codes of conduct rooted to the land. They made their native stand, and they exchanged with neighbors their handiwork that they had produced for mutual benefit. They were a cottage industry unto themselves.

Then, at some distant point, began the onslaught of the Industrial Age. People scattered from the soggy land to the cities to earn a living wage. The land was sold, robbed or swindled out from under them by the architects of a new One True Way. The people surrendered the insecurity of the seasons for the security of a daily drudge you could count on. An industrial army obediently followed their captains of industry, marching somnambulantly to the factory cave like the expressionless automatons from an M.C. Escher print.

And knowledge of self-sufficiency was lost...

Became buried in the soil with the graves of the Diggers and Wiccan women, with the bones of the woolly sheep and woolly mammoths enclosed by the invisible hand of the free market that wasn't free. The gritty knowledge of the Seasons of the Earth, the swa y of the land, the tempest and kinetic joy of the elements, all these became just another historical ghost. Most people nowadays cannot even afford their own square piece of turf, let alone the knowledge of how to work it. Chained are we, to the exigencies of the Big Industrial Machine, like quadriplegics plugged into a life support machine. Expendable labor in a specialized economy organized and managed by the Captains of Industry, those gorgons of property and rights, those insatiable gormandizers with the privilege of dictating the terms. We come to them like bleating sheep to the slaughter, trusting, hands extended, ready to labor, to have our sweat organized so that we all may consume equally and enjoy a popular standard of living.

And what do the Captains do with the deposit of our trust? Pittston, General Motors, Eastern Airlines, Greyhound, Flint, Michigan, air traffic controllers, Exxon, Ravenswood Aluminum -- they ship our jobs overseas! They soil and pollute our waterways and skyways, they poke ozone holes in the atmosphere! They decrease benefits and wages and terminate those with seniority, they close plants and shops with no care of the devastation wrought to an entire community. They fill orders for weapons that hold us all hostage, weapons aimed at the jugular of the world. They blacktop the Capitol dome, they hold us hostage in the pursuit of their Life, their Liberty, their Happiness, their Holy Profits -- profits, their gospel creed -- all in the pursuit of their Naked Self-Interest.

"Don't enter into the exchange unless you benefit," counsels Milton Friedman. "You always have the alternative of producing for yourself."

Yeah, right. Do you know how to produce for yourself, Mr. Academic Economist? Let's see you get out there with a hoe and a hammer, and grow your own, and spin your own, and pound together your home. Your white putty hands wouldn't last a half hour! So what makes you think anyone else can do it, Professor Friedman? We lost that knowledge, that option, long ago, buried beneath the avalanche of industrial steamrollers. You rational choice theorists are frightening in your myopia: you use mathematical formulas to prove the location of the end of you nose, when all you have to do is reach out and touch it.

Workers exchange because we have no choice. We're plugged into this Big Slurping Machine like a life support system. One's only choice is to shuffle from job to job, from state to state, or country to country, but everywhere it's the same, whether your flipping burgers at McDonald's or selling soap suds door to door: 1) declining real wages, 2) increased costs in health care and housing, 3) more job hours needed to provide the same livelihood as ten years ago, 4) less time for relaxation, rest, enjoyment, family.

Plugged into the Machine.

"No exchange will take place unless both parties benefit." Obviously Professor Friedman, this is not an observation of actual, real life. This is a statement of convoluted fantasy, of blind faith in free market pipedreams, of academic theoretical ca-ca. Consider this: every worker is an entrepreneur, in business for her or himself. Yet we workers don't have high-priced lobbyists to walk the halls of Congress for us. Though we too are worker-entrepreneurs, we receive none of the tax breaks or loopholes afforded to Big Business. No free business lunches, no tax deductions for business travel, no write-offs for depreciation of equipment like our homes and apartments or our autos. We don't have slick lawyers to figure out tax shelters where we can hide our assets. Most of us don't have enough to hide. We stand naked before your self-interest.

We are dwarfed by the mega-size of businesses with whom we exchange the only product we have to sell -- our labor. Our "households" are cottages, theirs are castles. A feudal castle with a tyrannical lord inside, who with one wave of the Invisible Hand can decide matters of health or housing, survival or bounty, even life or death. Indeed, the feudal lord decides whether the cottage will flourish or languish.

The conditions favor the lords of the castles over the billions huddled in our cottages. We have no choice but to enter into the exchange, offering up our labor that has been uprooted from our own square piece of turf. We shop our labor around, but everywhere it's the same -- no respect, no dignity, fodder for the Machine. The internationally disposable worker.

So if the Captains of the Economy sell our blood to make their profit, don't be alarmed -- it's just everybodyís naked self-interest at work. Don't blame the Captains, say Professors Friedman and Adam Smith, it's how the system works -- perfectly. Our mutual naked self- interest at work, our cooperation achieved without coercion.

There, doesn't that make you feel better?

End of story.

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