Writing for The Huffington Post about the American health insurance industry, Bill Moyers and Michael Winship wonder, “Why is too much not enough?”
Living in these United States, there comes a point at which you throw your hands up in exasperation and despair and ask a fundamental question or two: how much excess profit does corporate America really need? How much bigger do executive salaries and bonuses have to be, how many houses or jets or artworks can be crammed into a life?
Note the use of the word “excess” when complaining about profits. According to the authors, there can be a certain norm apparently over which profits may be considered “excessive” and thus immoral. They conveniently provide something of an objective standard according to which the “excessiveness” of profits may be measured: to own multiple homes, airplanes or works of art isn’t necessary, they argue, so if you’re working hard to buy that next Picasso, you should be ashamed of yourself!
Moyers and Winship go on to blast the insurance industry for making profits while people suffer and die, unable to afford medical care. They blame greed — the selfish pursuit of profit so typically associated with the morality of the businessman in a culture that loathes capitalism.
In popular usage, “selfishness” is understood as synonymous with evil. In conjures the image of the cigar-smoking industrialist who tramples over piles of helpless workers, turning massive profits at the expense of the people’s freedoms and rights. The precise meaning of “selfishness” however is simply: concern with one’s own interests.
In a society that values man’s natural rights to life and liberty — a society as the United States — each man is equally endowed with such rights, which is to say: to advance one’s life (by making money for instance) or to express one’s liberty at the expense of others is always wrong. Selfishness on itself however; the pursuit of happiness, is as essential to a free and virtuous society as the two aforementioned entitlements.
There is a stark and fundamental difference between the man who pursues his self-interest in terms of production and trade and the man who pursues it by robbery. The immorality of the robber is not his selfishness; it is not the pursuit of “excessive” profits — there is no such thing — nor an insatiable greed for more vacation homes in the Hamptons; his degredation is the violation of the inalienable rights of other men.
There is no such thing as an “excessive” profit if rightfully earned. Justice can never permit one man to decide for another what is proper or “necessary” for him to own. The only people with the power to determine the size of a businessman’s profits are the consumers who buy his products or don’t.