Over at Megan’s place, Tim Lee titles a post “The Collectivist Candidates,” and highlights a couple of statements chiding both Obama and McCain, but mainly Obama, for asking Americans to consider devoting a part of their time to public service, rather than just seeking to make as much money as possible. In the first statement excerpted, David Boaz argues that people should make as much money as possible, because it’s their life, and anyway, free markets make the world better. In the second, Jim Manzi makes these points as well, but also says Obama didn’t actually sacrifice (because his community organizer salary was ample and he knew he’d write bestsellers later in life), and that at least McCain had the balls to go and get tortured.
I have several problems with all of this. First, if the complaints above are meant to be political winners, then the writers might wish to consider the reaction from their collectivist base. I don’t think devotion to service will strike sensible Christians as odd in the least. I think, actually, that quite a few people make speeches like this every Sunday to folks who often vote Republican.
Second, yes, pursuit of wealth does make society better off, and it also (typically) pays pretty well, which is why these speeches need to be made. The market has the most compelling argument out there–a fat paycheck–and if you believe that this kind of call to action is sufficient to disrupt the desire to make money then I’d hardly describe that as a vote of confidence in the power of markets to allocate resources efficiently. People are going to work and try to get rich; it seems silly to challenge a call to devote a few hours a week, or two years out of a fifty year career, to service.
And finally, it’s correct to say that work for profit has helped produce most of our material wealth as a nation. It’s also true that the nation has improved itself in monumental ways thanks to the service of people who ignored market signals. Obama cites the civil rights movement as an example of what he means, and that’s apt. It’s clear to me that segregation was an economically stupid idea, but it wasn’t to most people at the time. Market forces simply weren’t going to apply the political pressure needed to end institutionalized racism in this country.
And market forces will also do nothing to fix climate change (another of Obama’s examples) unless sufficient public pressure is placed on leaders to change our laws. That’s the nature of the greenhouse gas externality. Thankfully, there are thousands of activists out there working to apply that pressure.
Like it or not, the world is not merely made up of individuals that experience only individual costs and individual benefits. There are social costs and social goods and social challenges, and no amount of dollar chasing will eliminate them without the dedicated service of people who could be doing other, more lucrative things. I think it’s good and right that Obama is encouraging graduates to consider that, and I don’t think he’s a hypocrite for doing it just because he didn’t live in destitution or fight a war when he was a young man.
I just don’t understand why, if working for money is so great, these guys feel the need to have that belief repeatedly affirmed by others. Don’t they get that the market is telling them they’re great through their paychecks, and that it’s only where the market, in its failures, doesn’t convey that message that other encouragement is needed?