As many of you are aware, John Mackey, the co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a supporter of capitalism. He has written a book along with Raj Sisodia, another businessman, called Conscious Capitalism, in which it is argued that capitalism has been misrepresented and unfairly criticized. Mackey believes that in fact capitalism has been responsible for incredible increases in standard of living and technological progress.
I agree with Mackey on these points, and I think even most opponents of capitalism agree with this last point. I also should say that I like Whole Foods immensely and enjoy buying their products — and here I want to set aside the issue of evaluating the business venture and instead focus on Mackey’s political views.
Mackey believes that we should all recognize that business is often not only, or even primarily, about maximizing profit. Instead, Mackey argues that most businesses start with a purpose or vision, such as providing people with healthy organic foods or making it easier and more efficient to navigate the internet, as Google has done.
There’s certainly a sense in which this is true, and important: It’s not the case that businesspeople are concerned with making money by whatever means necessary. Often they are passionate about providing good services or products that consumers value. But does this mean that capitalists do not or should not act selfishly?
Clearly, Mackey thinks so. But since it’s obvious that the majority of capitalists are not acting altruistically, there’s a gap in his argument. What ultimately motivates them? To Mackey, it is the flourishing of the business and the achievement of a certain vision.
But why does Mackey view profit pursuit and selfishness as lower purposes and therefore less praiseworthy?
It’s because Mackey accepts an erroneous view of self–interest. If we hold people like Bernie Madoff or the Enron executives as archetypes of selfishness, then of course it is evil and wrong.
But observe what this does: We group these corrupt, short-sighted, self-destructive individuals with others who are primarily interested in promoting their own lives but do so in a rational, productive and honest way — people such as Henry Ford or Steve Jobs, who pursue their own profit by providing others with values through mutual gain.
Clearly, there is an enormous difference between these examples. And Conscious Capitalism, despite many of its interesting points and arguments, ignores this.
What is evil is not the fact that dishonest or corrupt capitalists are pursuing their self–interests (in the long-term, they aren’t even pursuing their self–interests at all) — it’s that they see others as obstacles to their values, and seek to subvert others and turn them into victims.
Ayn Rand noted that if we accept the false, conventional view of selfishness, this “permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites … it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men …” (The Virtue of Selfishness)
Mackey’s defense of capitalism ultimately fails because it fails to acknowledge that capitalists are primarily after profit (in the broad sense that they are pursuing their self–interests), and that this is totally compatible with being passionate about one’s work and having a vision.
It is moral and just to reap the benefits of one’s efforts and judgment in creating wealth. Laissez–faire capitalism is the system that allows people to pursue their rational self–interest free from the coercive force of government regulations and wealth-redistribution, and this is why it is the ideal system.
When TRISTAN DE LIEGE is not busy shopping at Whole Foods, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: The print edition of this article ran on Feb. 26 with the incorrect headline, “Religion as power.” The headline in the online edition is correct.