We've got problems. Our economy has stagnated; unemployment is high; we have an almost inconceivable amount of national debt; and our elected officials are fighting among themselves. What we need are some good solutions. What's to blame for this mess? In a country that is so politically divided, surprisingly you'll often get the same answer in Beverly Hills that you'll get in Biloxi, Miss.: selfishness. Wall Street greed. Selfish homeowners stripping their homes of equity. The fat cat one percent exploiting the 99 percent. Excessive executive compensation. Whether you're red or blue, black, white, brown or something in between, we can all agree that the root cause of our problems is selfishness. Or can we?
What if I suggested that selfishness is not only not to blame for our problems, but that selfishness can actually solve our problems? Ridiculous? Maybe not. A powerful new book from Yaron Brook and Don Watkins titled "Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government," argues that "Economic freedom can flourish only in an America that celebrates selfishness -- the individual's pursuit of his rational, long-term self-interest -- as a virtue." Did you catch that? Celebrate selfishness as a virtue. As someone who has written that "greed is good" and who has espoused the ideas of self-interest on John Stossel's TV show, I wholeheartedly agree.
So why does selfishness get such a bad rap, and why does it always lead to more regulations and a larger government? Brook and Watkins lay out two reasons: The argument from greed and the argument from need. Selfishness is bad, according to the argument from greed, because those who are selfish are inherently destructive and their evil ways need to be reigned in by government. In other words, we need more and more regulations to temper the actions of the greedy business people who only care about profits. More regulations mean more restrictions on our economic freedoms.
The argument from need is equally common. Just last week, one of the stories that the media has jumped on is the New York City police officer who gave a barefoot homeless man a pair of boots. One man's kindness and generosity to provide for another has sparked a national interest that we, collectively as a nation, should be doing more to help the homeless. "Wherever there is someone in need," writes Brook and Watkins, "we think something must be done."
Since the story of the homeless man broke, it was discovered that he has chosen to live on the streets of New York City. CBS reports that he has had an apartment and that he receives support from veterans' benefits, federal Section 8 assistance and Social Security. Paraphrasing Creedence Clearwater Revival, "How much more should we give? [Politicians] only answer more! More! More!"
This desire to always do more and more and more creates an even larger entitlement state -- what the authors define as "Programs that redistribute wealth in the name of guaranteeing important needs." So large, in fact, that over 60 percent of the federal budget goes to fund entitlements.
The solution to create economic growth and prosperity is rational self-interest. We need to shift from attacking self-interest, the evils of the profit motive and capitalism, and instead celebrate individuals trying to better themselves without sacrificing their lives to others in the process -- what Ayn Rand and the authors call altruism.
Brook and Watkins sum up selfishness by quoting Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged," "I swear -- by my life and my love of it -- that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." If we focus less on the "we" and more on the "me," where each of us is doing what we can to create a better, fuller, richer life for ourselves, while not obstructing others doing the same, we have the necessary ingredients to reduce our bloated government and to create individual and national prosperity.
(Robert Pagliarini is a CBS MoneyWatch columnist and the author of "The Other 8 Hours: Maximize Your Free Time to Create New Wealth & Purpose" and the national best-seller "The Six Day Financial Makeover." Visit YourOther8Hours.com.)