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What If Being Good Were Made Profitable?

The political philosopher, Machiavelli, concluded that “fear” was the best tool a leader could use to keep his subjects under control. And there is no doubt that fear has worked well over the centuries to keep people in line. But could it be that in today’s globalized world a new organizing principle may be emerging?

Take China, for example. I don’t doubt that the leaders there would like nothing more than to crack a few more heads in Tibet. They are tempted to use fear to quell the dissention there. Why, because they rule over a huge number of people, situated in a varied array of political, religious, economic, and social subgroups. If Tibetan dissention were allowed to bear fruit; what other repercussions would be likely to ensue? And for the Chinese leadership, the loss of order would pose an existential threat.

And yet, with all the incentive to use the Machiavellian notion for fear, China realizes that there is a limit to what she can do in this regard, given the context of the new economic and diplomatic realities she finds herself in. The Olympics are coming up, and too many cracked heads would not be exactly in keeping with the Olympic spirit of international friendship and fair play. And there are also all those trading partners to think of. A massive crack down would not bode well for good business relations.

The conundrum in which China finds herself is indicative of a new organizing principle at the heart of international affairs—and that is the principle of maximizing profits. Of course, the inclination to maximize profits has always been around, but in a globalized economy, in which market share and profitability are everything, profit is becoming an ideological imperative.

Now some of you may think that the quest for profits is perhaps a shallow endeavor, not worthy of much consideration, and not indicative of the more noble aspects of the human condition. But I, for one, think that the hunger for profits could be used to energize a rational approach to solving some of our most intractable problems and existential threats we face.

Ask yourself this: What are the most serious problems we face? I would point to three in particular: Ideological Extremism, the threat to the Environment, and widespread Poverty. Could the need to maximize profits in a global economy help to bring solutions to these global problems? I think it’s possible that the answer is, yes.

In a global economy, the major players are in constant search of new markets for their goods and services, and for a ready supply of natural resources, like oil. Look at China trying to open up new markets wherever she can. Is it possible that the competitive nature of a global economy may be conducive to healing some of the world’s ills?

Let’s say for example that you want to tackle the problem of ideological extremism. Well, you could conclude that creating good paying jobs in third world countries will help to neutralize extremism. Good paying jobs will not necessarily sway the extremists themselves, but they will make it more difficult for the extremists to sell their ideological wares. The vast majority of people will be less susceptible to extremist ideology once they are able to hold on to good paying jobs and provide for the families. So in this example, the search for profits becomes a search for new markets, which in turn means the creation of good paying jobs. The need to protect profits coincides with the need to quell extremism, which widespread employment will help to do.

Let’s say that you want to protect the environment. So ask yourself this: How can we make environmental protection profitable? Well, a barrel of oil is now selling close to $120. The profit margin there may now be great enough to allow green technology to compete profitably. So, as part of the ubiquitous search for profits, you create jobs, which produce green technology products, which help to clean the earth up, and quite possibly reverse the course of Global Warming. You see, it’s not that we want to be good by cleaning up the earth. God forbid. It’s more that we clean up the earth because we can turn a profit. But if the earth ends up cleaner, then who cares what the motivations were?

Let’s say that you want to eliminate extreme poverty; along with the hunger, disease, and homelessness that necessarily come with it. You could ask for charitable donations, but don’t hold your breath. History shows that people are not as charitable as they ought to be. So ask yourself this: How do we make it profitable to end poverty? Once again, look to the profit motive of wealthy nations and corporations, and play to their ambitions.

For example, in a global economy it is important to keep the wheels of economic activity turning. Poverty is an obstacle to profits because poor people, with nothing to lose, can easily succumb to extremist thinking. Therefore, in our never ending search for profits, we will need to open up new markets for our goods and services, and we will need access to natural resources. And we can’t let poor people get in the way. Therefore, in order to create new markets, we will create new jobs, for people to be able to buy our goods, and at the same time, with their stomachs full, they will be less susceptible to extremist thinking, so as to allow the profits to keep rolling in.

The idea here is not all that complicated. If it is indeed true that the new organizing principle of the global economy is profitability, then it makes sense to put all this ambition to good use. It may well be possible to structure the global economy in such a way, that the need to improve the bottom line will coincide with the need to solve some of the big global problems which lie at our doorstep. As such, we will become good not due to our innate sense of goodness, but because being good will be our ticket to being profitable.

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