Public Service and Private Misery

by | Jul 1, 1997

Jonas Salk once named the ambition that guided his career: “I wanted to do independent work and I wanted to do it my way.” His ideas were opposed by the scientific establishment, but he persevered, holding nothing above the verdict of his own mind. The result of his fierce independence was the first effective polio […]

Jonas Salk once named the ambition that guided his career: “I wanted to do independent work and I wanted to do it my way.” His ideas were opposed by the scientific establishment, but he persevered, holding nothing above the verdict of his own mind. The result of his fierce independence was the first effective polio vaccine.

We benefit more from Salk’s work that from ten thousand Americorps volunteers working slavishly to serve others. If Salk had accepted their altruistic premise — and therefore placed the judgments and desires of others above his own — many of these volunteers would be in wheelchairs.

Unfortunately, politicians today are demanding such selflessness of young people. Liberals and conservatives alike have embraced the view that individuals have a moral duty to serve society. President Clinton describes this as “an American idea.”

“The higher interests involved in the life of the whole must set the limits and lay down the duties of the interests of the individual,” says one advocate of selfless service to society.

An opponent declares: “Nothing could so completely divest us of liberty as the establishment of the opinion that the state has a perpetual right to the services of all its members… Public service and private misery [are] inseparably linked together.”

Does it give no one pause to learn that the exponent of the “American idea” is Adolf Hitler and his opponent is Thomas Jefferson?

“Citizen service” is a repudiation of the principle upon which our country was based: each individual is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of society, and his highest purpose is the pursuit of his own happiness. The benefits we enjoy in America today were created by individuals selfishly pursuing their own profit. Our windfall is a secondary consequence, not their goal.

The Founding Fathers have been often accused of wanting to protect their property, as if this were an evil motive. They were concerned with protecting their property, and the result of their efforts was the creation of a country where everyone has property rights. What sort of country would have resulted if they had renounced property rights as selfish and advocated communal ownership?

Without Thomas Edison we would have no light bulbs, recorded music, or hundreds of other inventions. Yet his goal was not to sacrifice for others, but to pursue and prove his passionately held ideas, no matter what others wanted of him. Do we really wish that he had dedicated himself to “citizen service,” perhaps by collecting donations to buy candles for the poor?

What about Henry Ford, who pioneered the assembly line? His motive was to profit from the mass production of cars; and, as a consequence, he made cheap and easy travel available to all. Should he instead have served others by cleaning up after horses in the slums?

We should be grateful that the geniuses who created the computer industry — men such as Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple — pursued their own dreams. If they had accepted the idea of citizen service, they might be teaching indigent children how to use an abacus.

This list could be extended indefinitely: from Andrew Carnegie to J. P. Morgan to the Wright Brothers — all are men who made America great, and they did so by pursuing their own selfish, creative ends.

If virtue consists of service to others, then such men are ignoble. Thus Gen. Colin Powell, who heads the campaign for community service, has stated: “This is about getting Americans off the sidelines and getting on the playing field.” The “playing field” is the realm of moral action, which allegedly consists not in creating values, but in redistributing them, not in achieving your own happiness, but in sacrificing it to the happiness of others. So the creator is on “the sidelines”; he would be worthy of our admiration only if he renounced his selfish pursuits and did volunteer work in a soup kitchen.

Powell has it backwards. The selfish creators — the Edisons, the Salks, the Gateses — are heroes, while those who seek only to serve others are self-made slaves. Jefferson was right — public service and private misery are inseparably linked. So are private profit and happiness.

David Harriman, M.S. in Physics, is the editor of Journals of Ayn Rand and a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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