Why the quest for this book matters to me.
I have dedicated my career to advising large companies to better serve customers, communities, employees and investors. On any economic scale, my impact has been minor at best. More often negligible. I try. I fail. I try again.
I can’t bear to leave such a flaccid legacy.
Like all of us, I aspire to make a difference. I yearn to leave a mark. Rather than “make a dent” in the world, I’d like to buff out a few.
I want to build a better world.
Let’s get clear on definitions. For me, “better world” means improving the prospects for my own family to live fulfilled lives, and for the human race to live in forever-improving conditions, in harmony with this beautiful blue ball.
There are many ways that talented people could aspire to this goal. But my knowledge and talents are narrow. The sector I can most meaningfully impact is the world of free market commerce. That may sound boringly mercantilist. Maybe it is. But not without cause.
Free markets to free minds.
With or without me; with or without this book, the commercial mechanism may provide our greatest lever to achieve my goal. I detail this in the next section. For now just know that free commerce represents a logical and very human extension of our primitive survival skills, rooted deep in our reptilian brain: opportunistic, striving, often calculating, cold, even vicious. Let’s call that the primal motive. But it also adopts our modern brilliance born of the evolving frontal lobe: democratic community, operating within the rule of law, where “fair” is more right than might. I think of it as the sapient motive of the homo sapiens.
(Of course, like any concentration of power, free markets also present one of the most vulnerable fulcrums for abuse. We’ll need rules and enforcement for that. But, again, that’s the next section. This is about my personal goals.)
Success may be small or large.
This book succeeds for me in the near term if – as a minimum – it affords me greater access and credential to advise more influential executives at more vital organizations.
My greatest hope is that this text presents useful insights in useful ways. It should provoke. It should prompt a call to action. It should guide those actions productively. And at its best, push beyond the halls of power to the corridors of labor and the common squares of civil society. It drives us all to act.
We must compel our readers.
Here’s the trick. Readers should expect no novel insights. We may only rediscover Newtonian physics – well understood, thoroughly documented in academia, observable in nature. The facts are out there, available to all.
I am open to surprise; maybe some quantum mechanics of optimal market performance will emerge, begging for a grand unifying theory. And I would love to discover such a “hook“, the kind of pivot that catches you off guard, yet makes perfect sense and causes you to thump your melon in bewilderment – “how did I not see that before.”
But as researchers, authors, observers and practitioners, we need not count on finding the hook. Because even the most basic known truths still defy thorough understanding, general acceptance and broad adoption. That’s the problem to solve. Move from insight to action.
To galvanize belief and inspire action, we must artfully convey insights to resonate more viscerally. Well told, our lessons should ring in the bone. Irrefutable truth prompts questions that demand answers. So we tell simple human stories, personal testimonials, founded on data, repeatable experiments, defensible under review. In so telling, we make them accessible, addressable and memorable.
Like stories of old, ours become tales retold. One trusted person recounts one powerful lesson to one open listener. The tale is trusted because the teller is trusted.
Truth wins trust. Trust earns belief. Belief compels action.
Our insights should prod simple decisions. Not easy decisions. But clear and unequivocal decisions.
Great decisions often present a hard choice. Choose to do good – to make the world better. Choose to do well – to make our personal lot better. It is fair and often just to pursue the latter. We owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to do well. But we owe it to our species, our sense of decency and our legacy to do good. We can’t always choose both – at least not in the same timeframe.
We elevate human history if we compel our readers to choose to do good, and only as a result – as a secondary byproduct, to do well. If pivotal decision-makers face a trade-off between these two – doing good socially or doing well economically – our invective should give pause. It should drive a hard wedge against our default behavior to choose “doing well”. It should help us defeat our purely selfish short-term interests.
This book not only speaks Truth to Power. It holds Power to account for decisions that would otherwise reward those purveyors of that power narrowly, but punish society broadly.
This book must equip and motivate me, and each dedicated reader, to change the world. For good. For all. Together.
Why this book matters to the world.
Free enterprise and open markets create free lives and open minds*.
This book should help businesses small and large to serve customers better, faster, cheaper and reward investors and citizens with constructive growth. In so doing, it will promote the profit motive, the bottom-up grassroots catalyst for freedom that has propelled the most rewarding metamorphosis of the human condition*, from subjugation and constraint to personal liberty and opportunity.
Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.
Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (1950)
*Many assumptions underpin these claims. To justify my argument I must deconstruct it. Consider these first principles. Each answers a simple question. What do I believe?
Principle 1. Freedom represents the foundational goal.
Freedom serves as the ultimate aspiration for the human condition. Each of us should be free to think, dream, and act for ourselves as we choose. If we act to serve of others, it must be our choice, not chosen for us; selection, not subjugation.
The absence of freedom operates as the relation of child to parent (when imbued with love and trust, as under any benevolent dictator). This produces dependence.
Worse forms, the relation of slave to master, occurs under malevolent dictators. This produces despondence.
The great revolution in the history of man, past, present and future, is the revolution of those determined to be free.
Free to live as they choose, individuals promote self-interest. Partnered into tribes, they form social communities and operate with shared agreement. Across all history and all societies large and small, these agreements model the rubric of the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, in more modern parlance – you are free to do as you please, until it imposes on others’ freedom to do the same.
Principle 2. Freedom is an unnatural state.
Freedom represents the most basic requirement to achieve my objective. Yet freedom does not come easy. Populations won their freedom only in the most recent centuries – mere nanoseconds of human history. Of course freedom has still not spread to all corners of the earth, nor is it protected for all individuals, in particular the most vulnerable. If you’re in earshot of an errant AK-47, liberty is at risk.
Freedom is always won at great cost. It requires the many to rise up against the few. But somehow, in a matter of only a few generations – at least in the privileged liberal democracies – we have come to believe that freedom is our destiny.
Bullshit. Human beings have subjugated their weaker neighbors for as long as there has been self-interest. For as long as there has been more than one tribe. Before that in fact, because the truth of pecking orders among social mammals predates the prehensile thumb and continues to this day. Anywhere and everywhere that there is social turmoil and instability, the weak fall prey to those who would impose advantage.
As noted by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan (1651):
“During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.
“To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues.
“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
From time immemorial, might has made right. And that is wrong.
We stand for human dignity. We fight for freedom.
Principle 3. Free markets are the gateway to free minds.
Free markets have done more to elevate the human condition than any prior mechanism. It has raised whole continents from hunger and poverty. No government, no political agenda, no philanthropy can match the power of commerce to transform the world.
Free markets begin with individual transactions. An individual free to barter, to profit, to reinvest. As families are able to produce more than they need for immediate survival they can trade toil for education – investing in tomorrow once today’s survival is assured.
Traders beget trade. Trade builds industry. Industrial scale produces greater excess. The incentive to collaborate among people overcomes differences and builds global ties.
This path beckons our nature, born of self-interest. Free trade is the original path to freedom from want. It produces excess and even abundance, funding investment in the future.
The differential investment is education – the foundation for free minds.
Principle 4. Knowledge is power.
When knowledge is jealously held in the heads of a few, power is held in the hands of the few.
Freedom is democratized by education – the great equalizer. Economic freedom conveys a sense of ownership which confers a demand for rights. To protect property. As the consumer classes in China and India and Africa emerge, they demand freedom, and increasingly have the leverage to pursue that demand.
Conclusion: Liberate markets. Liberate minds. Liberate ideas. Liberate lives.
If I make it my mission to promote freedom, then my best and highest use must be to promote and enhance free and fair markets.
This book will help large company executives, entrepreneurs and investors to demand more of themselves and the value of their enterprise.
It will help citizens and workers respect the power and enforce the responsibility of enterprise and their relationship to it.
It will help legislators to set fair rules. It will help governors adjudicate their fair application.
In the long run, it will help societies to thrive. It will compel readers and practitioners to care for the future in balance with the present, to overcome the inherent human bias such that those who do well also do good.
I excluded a last principle, extraneous to this book. Maybe we will find that it shows up at the end as an optimistic note on the future.
Principle 5. It is once again in our self-interest to serve others.
We have achieved an historic moment in the past century, in the wake of economic catastrophe and the broad dissemination of weapons of mass destruction, followed by much wider economic growth in all corners of the world and an explosion of virtually free and inexhaustible knowledge conveyed through an “always on” world-wide web. We have crossed a threshold in the first world economies where it is both possible and advisable to abandon our selfish gene.
This has been intermittently true for small populations through history. Plague, war, pestilence and nature’s wrath occasionally threaten whole societies. Spartans fought Persians against overwhelming odds for this very reason. Moses risked all to lead Egypt’s slaves to freedom. Tubman, to lead her society’s slaves out of confederacy. Schindler filled his list. Firefighters, law enforcers, soldiers, crossing guards and sanitation workers fling their fragile bodies into harm’s way in favor of their fellows.
Today these isolated acts of selfless courage are simply not enough. As a species, we must eventually be scrubbed from this soiled planet. Like a virus we have grown unchecked; we have wreaked environmental havoc in our wake. We cannot each hope to stand alone or stand apart to undo the scale of our damage. We must follow the counsel that Benjamin Franklin offered to his fellow founding US patriots, “we must hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang apart.”
Vested interests are giving way to the popular scientific realization that the world demands collective action. We either undo our devastation together, or bequeath devastation to our children.
We must come together. We must act as one. We must act for tomorrow as today.
And of course, I’d like to make these guys proud.
…or at least help them to believe that all my time in a book, in a conversation, and at a keyboard was well-invested.
Thank you, my raisons d’être (that’s ironically pronounced “debt”, gentlemen).