An Open Letter to CEOs: Defend the Profit Motive--or Perish
By Alex Epstein (Las Vegas Review-Journal, August 21, 2002; Providence Journal, August 24, 2002; Philadelphia Inquirer, August 29, 2002)
As a grateful customer of America's productive businesses--as someone who knows that his well-being depends on yours--I implore you to stop apologizing to your attackers. Stop pledging to "reform," to become "better corporate citizens," to embrace crippling new government regulations. As the target of an ongoing witch-hunt, you grovel at your peril.
The overwhelming majority of you have committed no crimes, yet you accept a collective guilt for the crimes of others. You accept the premise that fraud committed by a handful of cheats somehow requires atonement by all businesses. "We must and will act collectively to rebuild the trust that has been lost by the reckless disregard of a few," promised the Business Roundtable, which represents some of the most successful American corporations. Nearly all of you have given your unequivocal endorsement to the government's campaign to restrict your freedom by micromanaging your accounting practices, by choosing which firms you can associate with, and by deciding who may be appointed to your boards.
When Islamic terrorists killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, there was no call for all Muslims to "rebuild the trust" of the public. When "eco-terrorists" fire-bomb homes and burn down ski resorts, no one calls for an Environmentalist Oversight Board to pre-empt the environmentalists' next act of destruction. Why are only businessmen collectively reviled and treated as guilty until proven innocent?
Do not say it is because you do not "contribute enough to society." We all know that businessmen produce the computers, airplanes, medicines, and food that improve all our lives. It is not your effect on others, but your motive that causes you to be damned. Other groups, we are told, have a "noble," selfless motivation--Muslims serve Allah, environmentalists sacrifice for the sake of nature. No matter how many terrorist attacks occur in the name of Islam's call for jihad against non-Muslims or the environmentalists' quest to "safeguard nature" from man--such groups are viewed as pursuing inherently moral and benevolent ends. You, by contrast, are viewed as inherently immoral. Your "corrupt" desire for profits is why you are the first scapegoat for every social problem--from stock-market crashes to power crises to rampant obesity--and why the proposed solution is always more regulation.
It is your motive, therefore, that you must uncompromisingly defend. You must assert your moral right to make money--not because you intend to use it for some "public purpose," but because you have earned it and are entitled to enjoy its benefits.
Instead, you apologize for pursuing your self-interest. You claim that your real motive is self-sacrifice--that you are eager to subordinate your profits for the sake of the "community." Your conciliatory attitude, you have hoped, would improve your public image and make the government less eager to impose greater controls and to expropriate more of your wealth. But has this approach worked? Or has it instead simply surrendered the sphere of morality to the enemies of capitalism, thereby inviting ever-increasing constraints on business?
You are simply sanctioning your own victimization. You are conceding that you have no moral right to the profits you have earned, and that the fundamental justification for your existence is your self-effacing willingness to serve others. No amount of altruistic posturing will ward off assaults based on hatred of profit, capitalism, and self-interest. Everyone knows that the essence of your work is the pursuit of profit. To treat it as shameful by trying to disguise its nature leaves you defenseless. If you continue to echo the unquestioned bromide that virtue consists of selfless servitude, you will only invite more smears, more scapegoating, more lawsuits, more government controls.
Your only option, if you wish to survive and be free, is to morally disarm your attackers by upholding the virtue of making money. Defend your pursuit of profit. Be proud that you have become rich; your income--unlike that of the politicians who denounce you--is the result not of coercion, but of honest production and voluntary trade. Denounce the regulations that treat you as a criminal. Proclaim that you, too, are included in the Declaration of Independence--that your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are yours by inalienable right, and need not be justified by your becoming a rightless servant of "society."
Businessmen beware: appeasement of your moral enemies is leading you to destruction. Do any among you have the courage to stand up and fight?
Alex Epstein was a writer and a fellow on staff
at ARI between 2004 and 2011.