Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Lust for Power

I recently read the following in an e-mail exchange with a left-leaning friend of mine:

Free market theorists seem to say that the only true incentive is money. I disagree with that.  There also exists incentive for the common good. And whereas that may not be as strong an incentive to many, that virtue is mitigated in a free market system by the idea of profit, which is itself the built-in inefficiency of the free market.  This is one place where a government system has a completely non-theoretical advantage over a free market system.  Also in a public system, there is less incentive to bilk, manipulate, monopolize, defraud, or otherwise make choices that antagonize the common good.

I get the feeling that the above is a common way of thinking for many (if not most) of those on the left of the political spectrum. The idea that a profit motive is very corrupting and should therefore be avoided if possible. Implicit in this is the idea that any organisation which claims to not be motivated by profit will not be subject to the corruption that the profit motive brings, and is therefore preferable. I have a problem with this way of thinking.

First, no one is really motivated by making money. Money is a means to an end; people are motivated by what money brings them. It would be better to say that people are motivated by power. Power over their own lives, the lives of others, the environment, etc. That’s really what money brings a person so the people who run these potentially corrupt companies are really seeking for some form of power. Indeed, I would say that everyone is motivated by power, to some degree or another. Even someone who espouses something as noble as feeding the poor is looking for power over hunger. Power is what drives us all.

Money is not the only way to achieve power, there are many other ways including politics and religion. Taken in this context it really highlights the problem with this way of thinking. The idea that the public sector doesn’t have a “power motive” and that gives it an advantage should make even the most jaded of us smile at its absurdity. Of course the public sector has a power motive, and that power is no less corrupting there than it is in the free-market. It doesn’t really matter why you seek power (for the common good or for your own) it’s the power itself that is potentially corrupting.

I would think it safe to say that political leaders are just as corrupted by their lust for power as business leaders, if not more so. A profit motive is nothing to be feared, it’s something to be understood. We all have a profit motive (we just all have different definitions for “profit”) and that’s not going to change, because it’s a part of human nature.

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