Charlie's Blog: Butcher's Benevolence


Butcher's Benevolence

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

One of the things I used to believe as a libertarian was that everyone was selfish, and this was a good thing. Most libertarianism stems from this idea of Adam Smith that the free market works because people's desire for gain makes them do what appears to be altruistic and for the sake of others but is really done for their own sakes. We can accept this selfishness because it is a rational selfishness. In his sneaky way, Adam Smith was denying original sin and establishing one of the cornerstones of Enlightenment thinking which is that individualism should be the basis of society and not altruism. The problem is that Adam Smith was wrong.

In the libertarian mindset, each individual seeks his or her own good. Since we do not have everything we want or need, we trade with others from our surplus of goods for the things from their surplus of goods. For instance, the worker exploits the employer's need for labor while the employer exploits the worker's need for money. They trade labor for money and both benefit as a result of the exchange. Each pursued self-interest and both benefitted. What gets forgotten is when the employer shaves hours from a worker's paycheck or denies the worker a living wage or pursues a course of action that would impoverish both of them. Smith's original concept of the butcher's benevolence gets replaced by the too often told tale of the scorpion and the frog.

The Scorpion and the Frog

One day, a scorpion looked around at the mountain where he lived and decided that he wanted a change. So he set out on a journey through the forests and hills. He climbed over rocks and under vines and kept going until he reached a river.
The river was wide and swift, and the scorpion stopped to reconsider the situation. He couldn't see any way across. So he ran upriver and then checked downriver, all the while thinking that he might have to turn back.

Suddenly, he saw a frog sitting in the rushes by the bank of the stream on the other side of the river. He decided to ask the frog for help getting across the stream.

"Hellooo Mr. Frog!" called the scorpion across the water, "Would you be so kind as to give me a ride on your back across the river?"

"Well now, Mr. Scorpion! How do I know that if I try to help you, you wont try to kill me?" asked the frog hesitantly.

"Because," the scorpion replied, "If I try to kill you, then I would die too, for you see I cannot swim!"

Now this seemed to make sense to the frog. But he asked. "What about when I get close to the bank? You could still try to kill me and get back to the shore!"

"This is true," agreed the scorpion, "But then I wouldn't be able to get to the other side of the river!"

"Alright do I know you wont just wait till we get to the other side and THEN kill me?" said the frog.

"Ahh...," crooned the scorpion, "Because you see, once you've taken me to the other side of this river, I will be so grateful for your help, that it would hardly be fair to reward you with death, now would it?!"

So the frog agreed to take the scorpion across the river. He swam over to the bank and settled himself near the mud to pick up his passenger. The scorpion crawled onto the frog's back, his sharp claws prickling into the frog's soft hide, and the frog slid into the river. The muddy water swirled around them, but the frog stayed near the surface so the scorpion would not drown. He kicked strongly through the first half of the stream, his flippers paddling wildly against the current.

Halfway across the river, the frog suddenly felt a sharp sting in his back and, out of the corner of his eye, saw the scorpion remove his stinger from the frog's back. A deadening numbness began to creep into his limbs.

"You fool!" croaked the frog, "Now we shall both die! Why on earth did you do that?"

The scorpion shrugged, and did a little jig on the drownings frog's back.

"I could not help myself. It is my nature."

Then they both sank into the muddy waters of the swiftly flowing river.

The scorpion and the frog is closer to the reality of human relations than the idea of the butcher's benevolence. It staggers the mind to think that any person would pursue such a self-destructive course of action as the scorpion, but we read of these things all the time. Consider the superstar athlete who ruined his perfect marriage by chasing after whores. Consider the companies who break the law, lie to investors, and cheat employees and customers alike to their own demise. There isn't a day that goes by that we don't see people indulging their self-interest not only to the detriment of others but also to themselves.

I used to tell people that everyone was selfish, but that some people had an enlightened self-interest while others had an unenlightened self-interest. But this was so much nonsense. There is no such thing as an enlightened self-interest. This Randian libertarian notion is a myth. You will find it only in the pages of Atlas Shrugged. The reality is that it is bad thinking reversed to put the blame on the victim instead of the victimizer. This is what I call the "Goldman Sachs" defense. Basically, you can put the screws to someone with the notion that a smart person would have walked away from the deal. Or, in other words, you deserve to be suckered for trusting someone like me. This sounds almost identical to the tale of the scorpion and the frog.

In my readings of employee owned enterprises, I am amazed at how well these enterprises run and how much profit they generate. Other companies that have profit sharing with employees have similar results. Basically, when employee performance is tied to the performance of the company, they are motivated to work harder and promote the enterprise because they have a stake in the outcome. This model should also fit perfectly with the libertarian mindset. But I have never seen a libertarian or a right winger promote or praise this arrangement. It is usually some Marxist that touts the benefits of employee owned companies. The reality is that most businesses would run better with employee ownership and engagement, but the owners and management prefer to steal rather than share even if it means they get reduced profits as a consequence. "Enlightened self-interest" is their ex post facto reasoning for being stupid. Or, as Gore Vidal put it so aptly, "It is not enough merely to win; others must lose."

It staggers the imagination that a company would ever choose to not pursue what it is clearly in their own self-interest and would actually want to hurt others and themselves. Yet, as absurd as this sounds, this is exactly what they do. A classic example would be the way General Electric polluted the Hudson River even though this river runs through the city where GE brass lives.Why would they do such a thing? They did it for the same reason that Neutron Jack Welch loved firing people. There is pleasure in destroying humanity even if that humanity is yourself. People are not merely selfish. They are truly evil.

The butcher is benevolent not because he thinks it will make him a profit but because of some decency within him inspired by his morality and religious sensibilities. He has regard for his customers even if he doesn't know their names. A truly selfish butcher would prepare a dog carcass, call it pork, and collect a real profit. The benevolent butcher knows that giving customers what they expect is right.

The problem with being a benevolent butcher as opposed to being an evil butcher is that it puts you at a competitive disadvantage to all the evil butchers. When the referees are corrupted, the cheaters are going to win the game everytime. The sad fact is that most of the world is this corrupted game now. The result is reduced prosperity and a declining standard of living for everyone.

People only prosper in the true sense when they adhere to the Christian ethic. The libertarian ethic was the way Enligthenment thinkers tried to arrive at the same conclusion but by a different path. God was replaced by "rational self-interest." When has this ever been successful?

Adam Smith's religious sensibilities were clouded, but it is obvious to me that the man was a deist if not an atheist. Thinkers consider his two works, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as being opposed to one another, but I know they are not. Both attempted in their way to explain a morality without a personal God intervening. In Wealth, it was the "invisible hand." In Moral Sentiments, it was some vague appeal to empathy and compassion born out of personal relationships.This project of a religion without God continues today under various guises and labels which is how you get an animal rights feminazi activist that considers a ham sandwich to be murder while defending "reproductive freedom" which amounts to abortion and infanticide on demand. I suppose as long as the aborted baby isn't turned into a sandwich, it is morally acceptable.

The Christian ethic doesn't make sense from a rational viewpoint. It seems that doing right just makes you a sucker and a victim in this world. The idea is that Christians are the frogs in a world of scorpions. But this idea is a mistaken one. Jesus said in Matthew 10:16, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." The simple fact is that the Christian frog knows the true nature of the scorpion. He never gives rides to the scorpion. This is because the Christian believes in original sin. Human nature is corrupt and wicked. This means that people are not merely selfish but actually delight in doing harm to other people and to themselves. I have low trust in regard to people, and I always anticipate and expect them to do the worst. Once someone does me wrong, I resolve to never give that person the chance to do it again. But most of the time, they never get the first opportunity. Christians are not naive people. They know people are wicked.

People can change and become better. This is the message of Christian hope. But most people are not going to embrace this, and they will go to Hell. The world is a wicked place. The irony of this is that by accepting this dim view things actually get better. As a libertarian, I embraced a view that people were basically good with a few bad apples here and there. The result was that I was disappointed on a daily basis. I believed order came from freedom, but I must admit that it comes from restraint. A potent example was how the deregulation of the banking sector led to the abuses we see today and the 2008 meltdown. If libertarianism was correct, that deregulation should have made things better. But things became worse, and the freedom fools try desperately to blame it all on the government. The reality is that banking was bad before those FDR era regulations, and it became bad again when those regulations like Glass-Steagall were repealed.

Common sense tells us that people should have the freedom to do what is good and right, but they should not have the right to do what is evil and wrong. When libertarians make the case for making it easier for a small family business to operate, I applaud it. Unfortunately, their efforts get the government out of the way to let the big business devour those small enterprises. You are left with the choice of being mauled by a gator or eaten by a shark.

The problem with the libertarian worldview is that it gets human nature wrong. The reason the Democrats and Republicans have endured where the Libertarian Party has floundered is that they both in their respective ways get human nature right. Human nature is corrupt and fallen. The purpose of government is to restrain evil in both the social and economic spheres. Libertarians disagree with this, and this is why libertarianism is seen as naive and juvenile. If people are good, government is not necessary. People are evil. Government is the price of that evil.