What Motivates Us to Work and Create

I recently read Mind the Gap, an essay by Paul Graham on wealth, industry, and incentives. It’s almost 5 years old now, but it seems timely as our nation appears to be on a road toward socialism.

Wealth is not money. Money is just a convenient way of trading one form of wealth for another. Wealth is the underlying stuff—the goods and services we buy….

Where does wealth come from? People make it. This was easier to grasp when most people lived on farms, and made many of the things they wanted with their own hands. Then you could see in the house, the herds, and the granary the wealth that each family created. It was obvious then too that the wealth of the world was not a fixed quantity that had to be shared out, like slices of a pie. If you wanted more wealth, you could make it.

This is just as true today, though few of us create wealth directly for ourselves…. Mostly we create wealth for other people in exchange for money, which we then trade for the forms of wealth we want.

If you suppress variations in income, whether by stealing private fortunes, as feudal rulers used to do, or by taxing them away, as some modern governments have done, the result always seems to be the same. Society as a whole ends up poorer.

You need rich people in your society not so much because in spending their money they create jobs, but because of what they have to do to get rich. I’m not talking about the trickle-down effect here. I’m not saying that if you let Henry Ford get rich, he’ll hire you as a waiter at his next party. I’m saying that he’ll make you a tractor to replace your horse. (Emphasis added.)

Similar ideas can be found in a monologue from Francisco d’Anconia, the wealthy mine owner in Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged.

“Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason; it demands that you buy, not the shoddiest they offer, but the best that your money can find. And when men live by trade—with reason, not force, as their final arbiter—it is the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgment and highest ability—and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward.

“…you will see the rise of men of the double standard—the men who live by force, yet count on those who live by trade to create the value of their looted money—the men who are the hitchhikers of virtue. In a moral society, these are the criminals, and the statutes are written to protect you against them. But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law—men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims—then money becomes its creators’ avenger.

“When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion—when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing—when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors—when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you—when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice—you may know that your society is doomed.

“If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose—because it contains all the others—the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to make money.’ No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity—to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created….” (Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged. pp. 411-14. Emphasis added.)

2 replies on “What Motivates Us to Work and Create”

  1. Great post. Ayn Rand did an excellent job accurately characterizing those who “loot” their income from productive citizens: criminals-by-right and looters-by-law. It doesn’t bode well for our future as the looters-by-law continue to increase in number while also demanding more and more (healthcare-by-right, mortgage-forgiveness-by-law, etc.). What will happen when the balance shifts and those making a claim on the fruits of others’ labors outnumbers those producing the fruits? I believe America’s moral and religious erosion plays a huge part in its abandonment of self-reliance as an admirable virtue.

    Interesting comment about America coining the phrase “making money.” I know at least the Portuguese and Spanish phrases don’t have the same connotation that ours does.

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