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The Unselfishness Trap - Logical Arguments for Selfishness

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The Unselfishness Trap - Logical Arguments for Selfishness

Postby Scepcop » 01 Feb 2012, 02:09

Hi all,
I've been reading the ebook "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World" by Harry Browne and found a chapter called "The Unselfishness Trap" that most will find appalling. It gives plenty of logically sound compelling arguments on why selfishness is better for you and more sensible than unselfishness, and why the social pressure to be "unselfish" is a trap and fallacy that does not work in your interest. Check it out. It makes a lot of sense, even though it is very "selfish". (no pun intended)

(Note: You can read the ebook itself here:

How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, by Harry Browne, Chapter 5

The Unselfishness Trap

The Unselfishness Trap is the belief that you must put the happiness of others
ahead of your own.
Unselfishness is a very popular ideal, one that’s been honored throughout
recorded history. Wherever you turn, you find encouragement to put the happiness of
others ahead of your own — to do what’s best for the world, not for yourself.
If the ideal is sound, there must be something unworthy in seeking to live your life
as you want to live it.
So perhaps we should look more closely at the subject — to see if the ideal is
sound. For if you attempt to be free, we can assume that someone’s going to consider
that to be selfish.
We saw in Chapter 2 that each person always acts in ways he believes will make
him feel good or will remove discomfort from his life. Because everyone is different from
everyone else, each individual goes about it in his own way.
One person devotes his life to helping the poor. Another one lies and steals. Still
another person tries to create better products and services for which he hopes to be
paid handsomely. One woman devotes herself to her husband and children. Another
seeks a career as a singer.
In every case, the basic motivation has been the same. Each person is doing what
he believes will bring him happiness. What varies between them is the means each has
chosen to gain his happiness.
We could divide them into two groups labeled “selfish” and “unselfish,” but I don’t
think that would prove anything. For the thief and the humanitarian each have the
same motive — to do what he believes will make him feel good.
In fact, we can’t avoid a very significant conclusion: Everyone is selfish.
Selfishness isn’t really an issue, because everyone selfishly seeks his own happiness.
What we need to examine, however, are the means various people choose to achieve
their happiness. Unfortunately, some people oversimplify the matter by assuming that
there are only two basic means: sacrifice yourself for others or make them sacrifice
for you. Happily, there’s a third way that can produce better consequences than either
of those two.

A Better World?

Let’s look first at the ideal of living for the benefit of others. It’s often said that it
would be a better world if everyone were unselfish. But would it be?
If it were somehow possible for everyone to give up his own happiness, what
would be the result? Let’s carry it to its logical conclusion and see what we find. To
visualize it, let’s imagine that happiness is symbolized by a big red rubber ball. I have
the ball in my hands — meaning that I hold the ability to be happy. But since I’m not
going to be selfish, I quickly pass the ball to you. I’ve given up my happiness for you.
What will you do? Since you’re not selfish either, you won’t keep the ball; you’ll
quickly pass it on to your next-door neighbor. But he doesn’t want to be selfish either,
so he passes it to his wife, who likewise gives it to her children.
The children have been taught the virtue of unselfishness, so they pass it to
playmates, who pass it to parents, who pass it to neighbors, and on and on and on.
I think we can stop the analogy at this point and ask what’s been accomplished by
all this effort. Who’s better off for these demonstrations of pure unselfishness?
How would it be a better world if everyone acted that way? Whom would we be
unselfish for? There would have to be a selfish person who would receive, accept,
and enjoy the benefits of our unselfishness for there to be any point to it. But that
selfish person (the object of our generosity) would be living by lower standards than
we do.
For a more practical example, what is achieved by the parent who “sacrifices”
himself for his children, who in turn are expected to sacrifice themselves for their
children, etc.? The unselfishness concept is a merry-go-round that has no purpose.
No one’s self-interest is enhanced by the continual relaying of gifts from one person to
another to another.
Perhaps most people have never carried the concept of unselfishness to this
logical conclusion. If they did, they might reconsider their pleas for an unselfish

Negative Choices

But, unfortunately, the pleas continue, and they’re a very real part of your life. In
seeking your own freedom and happiness, you have to deal with those who tell you
that you shouldn’t put yourself first. That creates a situation in which you’re
pressured to act negatively — to put aside your plans and desires in order to avoid
the condemnation of others.

As I’ve said before, one of the characteristics of a free person is that he’s usually
choosing positively — deciding which of several alternatives would make him the
happiest — while the average person, most of the time, is choosing which of two or
three alternatives will cause him the least discomfort.
When the reason for your actions is to avoid being called “selfish” you’re making
a negative decision and thereby restricting the possibilities for your own happiness.
You’re in the Unselfishness Trap if you regretfully pay for your aunt’s surgery
with the money you’d saved for a new car, or if you sadly give up the vacation you’d
looked forward to in order to help a sick neighbor.
You’re in the trap if you feel you’re required to give part of your income to the
poor, or if you think that your country, community, or family has first claim on your
time, energy, or money.
You’re in the Unselfishness Trap any time you make negative choices that are
designed to avoid being called “selfish.”
It isn’t that no one else is important. You might have a self-interest in someone’s
well-being, and giving a gift can be a gratifying expression of the affection you feel for
him. But you’re in the trap if you do such things in order to appear unselfish.

Helping Others

There is an understandable urge to give to those who are important and close to you.
However, that leads many people to think that indiscriminate giving is the key to one’s
own happiness. They say that the way to be happy is to make others happy; get your
glow by basking in the glow you’ve created for someone else.
It’s important to identify that as a personal opinion. If someone says that giving is
the key to happiness, isn’t he saying that’s the key to his happiness? To assume that his
opinions are binding upon you is a common form of the Identity Trap.
I think we can carry the question further, however, and determine how efficient
such a policy might be. The suggestion to be a giver presupposes that you’re able to
judge what will make someone else happy. And experience has taught me to be a bit
humble about assuming what makes others happy.
My landlady once brought me a piece of her freshly baked cake because she
wanted to do me a favor. Unfortunately, it happened to be a kind of cake that was
distasteful to me. I won’t try to describe the various ways I tried to get the cake plate
back to her without being confronted with a request for my judgment of her cake. It’s
sufficient to say that her well-intentioned favor interfered with my own plans.

And now, whenever I’m sure I know what someone else “needs,” I remember that
incident and back off a little. There’s no way that one person can read the mind of
another to know all his plans, goals, and tastes.
You may know a great deal about the desires of your intimate friends. But
indiscriminate gift-giving and favor-doing is usually a waste of resources — or, worse, it
can upset the well-laid plans of the receiver.
When you give to someone else, you might provide something he values — but
probably not the thing he considers most important. If you expend those resources for
yourself, you automatically devote them to what you consider to be most important.
The time or money you’ve spent will most likely create more happiness that way.
If your purpose is to make someone happy, you’re more apt to succeed if you
make yourself the object. You’ll never know another person more than a fraction as
well as you can know yourself.
Do you want to make someone happy? Go to it — use your talents and your
insight and benevolence to bestow riches of happiness upon the one person you
understand well enough to do it efficiently — yourself. I guarantee that you’ll get
more genuine appreciation from yourself than from anyone else.
Give to you.
Support your local self.


As I indicated earlier in this chapter, it’s too often assumed that there are only
two alternatives: (1) sacrifice your interests for the benefit of others; or (2) make
others sacrifice their interests for you. If nothing else were possible, it would indeed
be a grim world.
Fortunately, there’s more to the world than that. Because desires vary from
person to person, it’s possible to create exchanges between individuals in which both
parties benefit.
For example, if you buy a house, you do so because you’d rather have the house
than the money involved. But the seller’s desire is different — he’d rather have the
money than the house. When the sale is completed, each of you has received
something of greater value than what you gave up — otherwise you wouldn’t have
entered the exchange. Who, then, has had to sacrifice for the other?
In the same way, your daily life is made up of dozens of such exchanges — small
and large transactions in which each party gets something he values more than what he
gives up. The exchange doesn’t have to involve money; you may be spending time,
attention, or effort in exchange for something you value.

Mutually beneficial relationships are possible when desires are compatible.
Sometimes the desires are the same — like going to a movie together. Sometimes the
desires are different — like trading your money for someone’s house. In either case,
it’s the compatibility of the desires that makes the exchange possible.
No sacrifice is necessary when desires are compatible. So it makes sense to seek
out people with whom you can have mutually beneficial relationships.
Often the “unselfishness” issue arises only because two people with nothing in
common are trying to get along together — such as a man who likes bowling and
hates opera married to a woman whose tastes are the opposite. If they’re to do things
together, one must “sacrifice” his pleasure for the other. So each might try to encourage
the other to be “unselfish.”
If they were compatible, the issue wouldn’t arise because each would be pleasing
the other by doing what was in his own self-interest.
An efficiently selfish person is sensitive to the needs and desires of others. But he
doesn’t consider those desires to be demands upon him. Rather, he sees them as
opportunities — potential exchanges that might be beneficial to him. He identifies desires
in others so that he can decide if exchanges with them will help him get what he wants.
He doesn’t sacrifice himself for others, nor does he expect others to be sacrificed
for him. He takes the third alternative — he finds relationships that are mutually
beneficial so that no sacrifice is required.

Please Yourself

Everyone is selfish; everyone is doing what be believes will make himself happier.
The recognition of that can take most of the sting out of accusations that you’re being
“selfish.” Why should you feel guilty for seeking your own happiness when that’s what
everyone else is doing, too?
The demand that you be unselfish can be motivated by any number of reasons:
that you should help create a better world, that you have a moral obligation to be
unselfish, that you give up your happiness to the selfishness of someone else, or that
the person demanding it has just never thought it out.
Whatever the reason, you’re not likely to convince such a person to stop his
demands. But it will create much less pressure on you if you realize that it’s his selfish
reason. And you can eliminate the problem entirely by looking for more compatible
To find constant, profound happiness requires that you be free to seek the
gratification of your own desires. It means making positive choices.

If you slip into the Unselfishness Trap, you’ll spend a good part of your time making
negative choices — trying to avoid the censure of those who tell you not to think of
yourself. You won’t have time to be free.
If someone finds happiness by doing “good works” for others, let him. That
doesn’t mean that’s the best way for you to find happiness.
And when someone accuses you of being selfish, just remember that he’s upset
only because you aren’t doing what he selfishly wants you to do.

Poke any saint deeply enough, and you touch self-interest.
— Irving Wallace
“Devotion to the truth is the hallmark of morality; there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking.” - Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
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Re: The Unselfishness Trap - Logical Arguments for Selfishne

Postby Scepcop » 09 Feb 2012, 05:30

Here are two related chapters from the same book, "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World". They present many airtight logical arguments on why you will never be happy or at peace, if you feel that you have to help others or change the world first before helping yourself.

The Utopia Trap
The Burning-Issue Trap

Here are the chapters pasted below. Read them and you will be stunned at how much sense these arguments make.

The Utopia Trap

The Utopia Trap is the belief that you must create better conditions in society
before you can be free.
It’s a very basic, very understandable belief. It’s easy to see that other people are
arranging things incorrectly — passing the wrong laws, misinterpreting things, even
maliciously arranging things to the detriment of others. You can see poverty, repression,
prejudice, and other conditions that stifle creativity and happiness.
It’s easy to feel that society needs an overhaul (major or minor) before you’ll be able
to live freely. As a result, you can devote a great deal of effort to attempts to make others
understand what you see, to the passing of laws, to a quest for a better society.
While you’re doing this, you obviously give up a great deal of time and other resources
that could have been used to enjoy life. But it’s assumed that once the proper overhaul
of society is completed, you’ll be able to live more freely.
There are two basic reasons why I don’t get involved in the quest to change
society: (1) because it’s an indirect alternative, it’s a much harder, more permanent
job than most people realize; and (2) it isn’t necessary. An individual doesn’t need to
live in a free society in order to free himself — and when he tries to change the world, he’s
in for a lot more trouble than he may have bargained for.
Let’s look first at the scope of the job involved in bringing about social change.

Separate Worlds

If you think you know the truth about a given situation, it’s very easy to assume
that all you have to do is point it out to another person. So naturally you’re amazed
when he doesn’t quickly agree with you and do what you want. But here we are back
in the Identity Trap again.
It’s hard to realize that you live in a world of your own — bounded by your own
knowledge, your own perception, your own ways of reasoning, your own set of
standards. And that other person doesn’t reside there. He lives in his own world.

Sometimes your worlds will overlap; with some people, they’ll overlap often. But
most of each person’s world is different from yours. What is obvious to you may seem
very strange to him. You can base a plan on making him see the light, but the plan can
very easily go astray.
And if it’s difficult to influence just one person, think what you’re up against when
you hope to change the prevailing views of a whole society of people.
Do you know what you face? Do you understand each of the individual natures of
the thousands or millions of people you’d have to convert to make your ideal society
possible? Will your statement of the truth be sufficient to make each of them give up his
own way of seeking happiness and follow your way?
This doesn’t mean that the world never changes — for better or for worse. It
changes constantly. But what we see as a changing world is the result of millions of
individual changes that add up to a net change in the General Market. The general
change is a result of many specific individual changes.
You can look through history and see examples where it appears that one person
has brought about great social change. And that can lead you to think that you can do the
same if you work hard enough or if you’re smart enough. But it doesn’t work that
Large social changes take place only when the market is ready — meaning when
millions of individuals are ready for such change. No matter who was leading the
movement, great social changes have occurred only when the market was ready for
them. If it was, the social changers succeeded if they acted wisely. If the market wasn’t
ready, they couldn’t move it.

Differences again

We’ve seen that we live in a world of different people — with different values,
tastes, knowledge, moralities, ideas, and beliefs.
The range of diversity among moralities, religions, and philosophies is as great as
it is among tastes in clothing and TV entertainment. Everyone is different from his
neighbors in some way. There are no unified blocks of people who share a philosophy
without deviation. Witness the arguments among Catholics and among Socialists.
Every individual seeks his own happiness. You or I might think a person
misguided in the way he seeks it, but he seeks it avidly nonetheless. And even if he
relies on someone else to tell him how to get it, he won’t necessarily choose you or
me as the one to tell him.
What we view as a social injustice is merely someone’s method of seeking
happiness. If you think that someone or some group of people is unjustly poor, your
opinion implies that someone else should be giving them more money — through jobs
or charity. That “someone else” is the person whose happiness seeking
methods disturb you.
In the same way, if you feel that certain people are being repressed politically, it
implies that someone has the power to keep them from doing what they want to do.
Again, you disapprove of the way in which that someone is seeking his happiness.
The desire to change social conditions is the desire to change or prevent the
happiness-seeking methods of the individuals you don’t approve of.
It’s easy to feel that an overhaul of some kind can set things right: laws passed to
guarantee income to the poor, political leaders removed, regulations enforced to
prevent racial prejudice, tax rates reduced or abolished, etc. Once the overhaul is done, the
problems will cease. But will they?
Probably not. It’s a mistake to assume that the villains will no longer cause
trouble. That’s highly unlikely. They will continue to seek their happiness (as all human
beings do), and each of them will do it in the way he knows best.
The way he knows best isn’t going to be overhauled by the changes you engineer.
He’ll still believe he was doing the right thing (for him).

The New Order

No matter what social changes are made, human beings will continue to be
different from one another. Any new order of things will be opposed by many
dissidents — just as you might oppose the old order now. The opponents of the new
way will work to change it, and they’ll be joined by others (previously unaffected and
unnoticed) who are bothered by the new conditions.
You’ll have to work just as hard to defend your changes as you did to bring them
about. There won’t be a stopping point where you can say the job is done and you can
return to your private life to enjoy the blessings of freedom.
There’s no way you could alter society so that every individual in it will have the
opportunity to live his life as he wants to. There are too many conflicts of interest.
Someone will have to be dissatisfied; in fact, a great many people will have to be
dissatisfied — just as you may be now.
You can believe that once the changes are made, the general benefits will be obvious
and people will be glad the changes were made; but don’t count on it. That’s falling
into the Identity Trap — expecting someone else to react to things as you would.
You can take the attitude that your way is the right way and that those who
disagree are simply wrong. But that doesn’t make any difference. Those “wrong” people
will still be upset and create problems for you.

There will always be disputes, conflicts, and problems to deal with. No system can
be established that would be completely peaceful, irrevocable, or permanent.
Let’s look at a couple of examples to illustrate this.
Suppose that you wish to see property rights respected. That standard appears to
be simple, straightforward, unambiguous, and reasonable. It wouldn’t seem difficult to
establish that as a basic principle of a society.
But there are plenty of people who believe that freedom includes taking what they
need from others — usually through political action. Many of them consider
inequalities in wealth to be conditions of slavery. They would continue to fight for the
social conditions they want.
Even if somehow everyone agreed with the basic principle of “property rights,”
and it were implemented by law or custom, there would still be many disputes. What
is property? How can boundaries be defined? Who trespassed first? What constitutes
interference? Who makes the final, binding decision to resolve a dispute? You may
have answers to those questions, but that doesn’t mean others will accept your
Or suppose your objective is a society in which “everyone has at least a minimum
standard of living.” What happens if someone can’t obtain that minimum through
normal market exchanges? Who will be required to give up some of his wealth to
bring the first person up to par? Will those who have to provide it be free? Will they
refrain from trying to evade your laws? Will they continue to produce wealth they
can’t keep?
No matter what standard governs a society, there will be disputes and unfree people.
And those people will fight for what they believe to be right for them. You’ll be living
in basically the same kind of society in which you live today — complete with pressure
groups, arguments, subjective interpretations of the rules, and opponents who are trying
to change the system to their advantage.
Any governing principle presupposes a method for resolving disputes within the
terms of that principle. That requires an agency (such as a court) that can enforce its
decision — by violence, if necessary — to be effective.
That means that someone somewhere will make a decision to be imposed upon
someone else who won’t like it. The judge’s decision will be based upon his own
personal perception, interpretation, and sense of justice.
Even if you bring about the general social change you want, the implementation of
your change by leaders, judges, or others may be vastly different from what you
Those who rule will always do so by their own subjective standards — whether
their authority is hereditary succession, a military takeover, or a vote of “the people.”
There will be those within a society who approve, those who disapprove, and those who
go their own ways and pay little attention to the rulers.
In many ways, a social structure that appears at a distance to be governed
objectively by certain clear and fair principles will, in reality, be composed of human
beings who’ll apply those principles subjectively. And that, of course, is what we
have already. In fact, that kind of system has always existed — no matter what name
it may bear.

The Price of Living

“Free societies” are usually dreams in which the dreamer hopes to be able to escape
the simple prices required to live happily in the real world. He may feel that he’ll no
longer have to fear economic changes that hurt his way of life, or that he’ll no longer
have to worry about protecting his property, or that he won’t have to deal with the
social conflicts he sees today.
The irony is that you pay a lesser price when you accept the existence of the
social disorders and deal with them individually. You pay a higher price when you
work to create a better society (through education, politics, etc.).
Even so, you can be encouraged to attack a social disorder by thinking that it’s
something “abnormal,” out of the ordinary, a simple flaw that can be easily corrected
to restore things to normal.
As I look at history, however, I become more and more convinced that what we
live in is “normal” — that things have never been basically any different from what they
are now. Many things have changed, but the essence of social structures has remained
quite the same.
In Florence during the Renaissance, in America during the 1970s, even in a
hoped-for free society, the facts remain the same: No matter where or when you live,
you’ll still have to deal with people different from you. You’ll have to cope with
people who don’t want you to have what you want, and who’ll try to take from you
what you have. Changing the social structure won’t change the prices you’ll have to
pay to get and keep what you want.
That doesn’t mean that one society can’t be a happier place for you to live than
another. There are differences, and it makes sense to consider living in the society
whose rules most nearly coincide with the way you want to live. That’s a direct
alternative. It takes far less effort to find and move to the society that has what you
want than it does to try to reconstruct an existing society to match your standards.
In the same way, if the society in which you live seems to be heading in a
direction you don’t like, it makes sense to get out before you’re hurt by it. I like to
think, for instance, that I would have moved out of Nazi Germany before it was too

There are some who would say I should have stayed and fought the tyrants, or
that I might not have seen the danger in time to get out. But no one could realistically
believe that my presence there would have made a difference in the national outcome.
And if I hadn’t seen the danger soon enough to avoid it, I certainly wouldn’t have seen it
soon enough to stop it.
You can’t change the fate of a nation, but you can do a great deal to make sure
you’re not affected adversely by it. What you have to do is simply part of the price you
pay to get what you want in life. And it’s always a far less expensive price than you’d
have to pay to undertake a social change of any kind.
No matter how difficult the task of changing society, the Utopia Trap is still
compelling. And it appeals mainly, I think, because few individuals see any other
So one can be induced to write letters, try to educate others, help get the right
person elected, throw the tyrants out, and engage in numerous other activities. But
these are all indirect alternatives. Your success will depend upon a whole series of “ifs”:
if other people see the light, if other people do what you suggest, if, if, if. No wonder
such movements are so frustrating.
And as we saw in the Group-Trap chapter, your individual participation in those
activities probably won’t affect the outcome one way or the other.

Using your Power

If the prospects for social change are pretty bleak, the prospects for individual
freedom aren’t.
If you’re not free now, it isn’t because you haven’t done enough to change the
world. Quite the contrary, it may be that you’ve been doing too much to try to change the
world. The effort you’ve expended in that direction could have been used to provide
freedom for yourself.
There probably are dozens of direct alternatives available to you that would
eliminate the effects of social injustice from your own life. And that’s really the
object, isn’t it?
Are taxes too high? You waste precious attention when you try to change the tax
structure. There are always ways to avoid paying those high taxes; all you have to do
is find them.
Is the government getting too repressive? You could spend the rest of your life
fighting it, but your actions won’t change the fate of the nation. However, you can
make sure the repression doesn’t get in your way.
The only clear path to freedom is through direct alternatives — decisions that
don’t require that you influence others. Direct alternatives always exist, and they’re
almost always far more effective than indirect alternatives.

There are hundreds — thousands! — of ways to be free when you concentrate
upon the power you have. But you can’t see them if you’re occupied trying to change
Further ahead, we’ll devote eleven chapters to specific methods you can use to
free yourself of the chains that may be binding you. All of the methods employ direct
alternatives. None of them requires that you change others or change yourself.

An Exciting World

The Identity Trap is the assumption that someone else will react as you would.
The Utopia Trap is that assumption carried to its ultimate conclusion — the
expectation that you can make the rest of the world correspond to your dreams.
You can’t. And when you try to do so, you only succeed in throwing away the
very real opportunities for freedom that you already possess.
The world is an exciting and beautiful place. It might not seem so if you’re
bogged down with restrictions on every side. But those who have recognized their
own powers and used them to be free see little need to change the world.
The world-changers are powerless. They dream of remaking the world; but since
they can’t, they’ve placed their emphasis where they have no power at all.
Free people recognize that they can’t change the world, and so they concentrate
on the power they do have — which is enormous. They realize that they can choose
not to be involved in situations that don’t suit them.
So they look for those situations that do suit them. And they discover far more
opportunities for such situations than most people imagine exist.
A free person doesn’t try to remake the world or his friends or his family. He merely
appraises every situation by the simple standard: Is this what I want for myself? If it
isn’t, he looks elsewhere. If it is, he relaxes and enjoys it — without the problems most
other people take for granted.
A free person uses his tremendous power of choice to make a comfortable life
for himself.
The power of choice. You have it. But you forfeit it when you imagine that you
can choose for others. You can’t.
But you can choose for yourself — from hundreds of exciting, happinessproducing
Why not use that power?

The Burning-Issue Trap

The Burning-Issue Trap is the belief that there are compelling social issues that
require your participation.
There are always numerous issues before the public — competing for your
attention, your concern, your time, and energy. When you view an issue by itself, it can
seem very compelling; you can feel that it can’t be ignored and that you must do
something about it. If you become aware of something evil and dangerous, it can seem
that you’re compelled to work socially to correct it and eliminate the evil.
But if you stand back and look at the whole spectrum of social issues that clamor for
your attention, you get a different perspective. Let’s identify some of the many issues that
writers, politicians, and crusaders have told us are do-or-die, must-be-taken-care-ofright-
now matters.
During recent years they’ve included such things as pollution, civil rights,
overpopulation, drugs, conservation, communism, consumerism, women’s liberation,
poverty, organized crime, law and order, disappearance of animal species, the sexual
revolution, government solvency, pornography, educational problems, mental illness,
privacy, high taxes, the Vietnam war, campus riots, the military-industrial complex,
police brutality, and disarmament. Plus perhaps a dozen more I’ve overlooked, plus a
few more that have become issues since I wrote this.
All these issues are presented as matters commanding your attention and
participation. But how could you possibly become involved in all of them? And if you
could, what would become of your freedom? How can you be free when you’re
burdened with a responsibility to right the world’s wrongs?
You can enslave yourself by assuming a responsibility to observe, judge, and correct
any social problems. For the problems will continue indefinitely. They’ll never be
resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The demands upon your time, energy, and money
can never cease.
Look back over the past 25 years. Can you think of a single social issue of the
magnitude and popularity of those just listed that has been successfully resolved? Has
any desperate social need been satisfied? And has the world stopped because of the
At the outset of most campaigns, the organizers assume that a given effort will
solve the problem once and for all; just educate enough people, get enough petitions
signed, pass a certain law, and the issue will be resolved and we can go back to our
private lives.
But once people are educated, they have to be re-educated; new ideas from other
sources may turn those you’ve educated away from the direction in which you’d thought
you’d steered them. And once laws are passed, they can be amended or repealed, so the
passing of a law doesn’t end anything.
Campaigns for social change are excellent examples of the indirect alternative —
working through others to get what you want. Your success depends on the
responses of literally thousands of people. Your control over the situation is minute.
And if the issue is important, you’re enlisting for life. If you do achieve any shortterm
goal, you’ll have to safeguard your victory for the rest of your life.
The existence of evil isn’t a claim upon you. “Evil” will always exist in
the world. To accept as a principle that you must fight something
because it’s evil is to believe you must fight anything that’s evil. There’s
no end to the number of evils that could command your attention. Is that
all your life is for — to spend it fighting evil?
Somehow the world goes on — evils, issues, and all. During this century people
have coped with world wars, depressions, prejudice, organized crime, and most of the
other issues mentioned before. None of them has been resolved; they occur and
But through them all, free people in any country have found ways of living their
lives freely and happily without feeling a responsibility to be involved. Their lack of
participation hasn’t changed the outcome of any social issue, but it has enabled them
to be free.


When you’re asked to participate in a crusade to deal with any social issue, the
matter can seem very compelling. But you can get a better perspective on the issue if
you ask yourself a few questions:
1. How much do you really know about the issue in which you’re about to get
involved? Do you recognize that you’re hearing only one side of the problem? Is the
person providing the “facts” to you qualified to determine the extent of the problem?
Once an issue gets started, a lot of people in the press, politics, and perhaps in
your neighborhood will jump on the bandwagon. Most of them simply repeat
90 Harry Browne / How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World
what they’ve heard. The quantity of repetition can be pretty impressive, but that
doesn’t tell you how true or significant their statements are.
I don’t have unquestioning faith in scientists or specialists; I don’t believe they
necessarily have all the answers — even though they may spend many years in a particular
field. But I have even less faith that the answers to social problems will be forthcoming
from broadcasters, politicians, crusaders, picket lines, or TV personalities. Do their sound
and fury constitute factual evidence upon which you should act?
2. How do you know the solutions sought will end the problem? They might even
cause greater problems.
For example, there’s a great demand that the government outlaw pesticides that
are supposedly hurting crops. The government is being asked to protect us. But it
was the U.S. Department of Agriculture that pressured farmers into using the
pesticides in the first place. The government’s original “solution” to a problem has
brought about a new problem.
3. Is the issue really of significance to you? If the standard to be applied is the
existence of injustice, evil or hardship, then there are millions of issues you must deal
with, regardless of whether they affect your life. But there are also plenty of matters
that apply directly to you. Isn’t that where your time can be best spent?
4. Is it possible that you’re responding to social pressure rather than genuine
concern over the issue? Perhaps you’re becoming involved in order not to appear
“unconcerned,” “selfish,” or ignorant.
If you get involved for those reasons, you’re walking into the Unselfishness Trap
or the Morality Trap. What others choose to do with their lives is up to them, but you
have no obligation to cooperate.

Solving Problems

If an issue concerns you, there are both direct and indirect alternatives available to
you. The indirect alternative is to try to change the prevailing social trend — which
involves changing others. The direct alternatives are the ways by which you can handle
the problem so that it doesn’t affect you personally.
The second way is by far the easier. Let’s look at some examples:
Are you being discriminated against because you’re a woman? How long would it
take to reorient society so that most businesses would offer better job opportunities to
women? Probably a very, very long time.
On the other hand, what do you really need? You obviously don’t need to have
fifty million new jobs available for females; you couldn’t fill them all.

Perhaps you resent men treating women as “sex objects.” Does it really matter if
millions of men continue to do so? What do you really need?
Chances are you only need one job and one man (or maybe two or three). Do you
need to overhaul all of society just to get one good job? Do you need to reeducate
all men just to be able to enjoy one good one?
Why not, instead, use some selectivity in trying to meet men who treat women the
way you want to be treated? I’m sure such men exist — no matter what your tastes.
And why not pass by the job where you know women will be treated as inferiors?
Look for employers or customers who are concerned with value first and foremost.
They’re likely to be those who are the most intensely profit-seeking. Those people
want quality for their money, not gender.
You need only one man, one job, one place to live, one set of friends. To find
them, is it really necessary to become involved in a social movement to change the
thinking of millions of people?

Other Issues

Are you afraid that the drug culture will destroy society? Why? Alcohol hasn’t —
even though it’s created reckless drivers, alcoholics who steal to support their habits,
and all the other problems attributed to drugs.
If you think drugs are dangerous, don’t use them. If you’re afraid for your
children, then concentrate your attention on them, not on a problem you’ll never
solve. I can’t guarantee that you’ll insulate your children from drugs; but if you can’t,
how could you hope to insulate society at large from drugs?
Are you appalled by protest and violence on college campuses? Then don’t send
your child to a college where such things happen. Don’t expect to change the attitudes
of students; their motives are their own.
Are you afraid that consumers are cheated by manufacturers? Then don’t buy
from sellers who can’t prove the worth of their products. If goods are generally of
low quality, it’s because sellers have found that buyers prefer not to pay more for
better goods.
But that doesn’t have to affect you. You can always find, within the General
Market, sellers who cater to your minority tastes.
You could crusade for government-enforced quality standards. But history
demonstrates that government interference produces worse products, not better.
Government standards create red tape, contradictory laws, dictatorial agencies,
payoffs, and the loss of your opportunity to buy the products you want but that don’t
please bureaucrats.
If you’re afraid there won’t be enough food to go around someday, stock up in
advance. Wouldn’t that be easier than trying to get the whole world to limit
population? (With farmers paid not to grow crops, it isn’t surprising that food output
isn’t increasing faster.)
The demands that you limit your family to one child are based upon an average of
what some people think is the total amount of food and space available. But how is
that relevant to you? Acting on such considerations is an example of the Group Trap
— treating things collectively instead of individually.
By the same reasoning, you shouldn’t drive a car or eat steak or have more than a
one-room house for your family — based upon an average of how much is available for
the whole world.
The appropriate question is, “How much food and space do you have?” Do you have
enough to support the family you want, taking into consideration possible changes of
circumstances? What will be the consequence to you?
If you’re concerned about the depletion of natural resources, move to an area where
they still exist and buy property that you can preserve the way you want it. If you
don’t want to live there, are you sure the issue is important to you? And if you do
want to live there, the cost of property would be less than the cost of trying to change
the thinking of the whole country regarding such things.
The entire issue of conservation has always seemed to be a strange one for me.
I’ve never been able to figure out for whom we’re saving the irreplaceable resources.
If we aren’t allowed to use them, then the next generation shouldn’t use them either,
nor the one after that.
As certain resources are depleted, others are brought into use. Profit-seeking
innovators look for ways to solve such problems because the rewards they receive are
worth it. When attempts are made to hold back that evolution, people can wind up
paying more for what they value less.
For example, conservationists say that trees should be saved by using recycled
paper. A UPI news item reports that Bank of America, American Telephone, Coca-
Cola, and McGraw-Hill are among the companies using recycled “ecology bond”
paper. The cost at the mill is $20 to $40 more per ton than new paper of comparable
That higher cost is an indication that the resources required to recycle paper are
more precious to the General Market than the cost of new paper. If people truly
valued timber in its uncut form, the cost of it would be higher than the cost of
recycling paper. The price of anything is an indication of its attractiveness and scarcity,
compared to other things. When attempts are made to overrule the natural expressions
of the General Market, higher prices are inevitable.

13Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, August 12, 1971.

My few brief remarks concerning these social issues are by no means final
answers to any of the questions. But, then, neither are the popular slogans uttered on
behalf of “ecology,” “liberation,” “consumerism,” and “conservation.”
There’s always a great deal more involved than is popularly discussed. And
there’s always something you can do for yourself that doesn’t require changing other
Ask yourself what you’d do if you were sure you couldn’t change the attitudes of
others. What then would you do by yourself to keep the problem from affecting you?
If you approach it on that basis, you usually find that there are many more direct
alternatives available than you’d noticed while you were busy trying to change others.
Even if you could make big changes in the world, the cost would be gigantic. It’s
always simpler and less costly to look for direct alternatives — as opposed to those
that depend upon getting other people to act as you want them to act. That principle
applies in any area of life.
Change will take place as a result of broad changes of interests in the General
Market. Some changes you’ll like; some you won’t. But those changes will occur
whether or not you participate in these matters.
So you have a choice: should you involve yourself in efforts to advance or retard
the change — where your efforts will make little difference — or should you simply
make any personal adjustments necessary as the changes take place?
Participation in burning-issue movements might be a good way to meet likeminded
people, or it might be that you enjoy the challenges involved. But if you jump
into them because you think your participation will change the course of the world,
you’re probably making a grave mistake.

My Prejudices

These remarks weren’t intended to sell my side of any of these social issues.
As a matter of fact, I more often fit naturally on the same side as the crusaders. I
don’t care for low-quality products that might hurt me; I don’t use drugs; I don’t
believe I harbor any racial prejudices; I love women for their minds and their
emotions, as well as their sexiness. And I don’t intend to have children (but not
because I think the earth is overpopulated).
But these are matters I can handle on my own. I moved to Vancouver, Canada,
from Los Angeles because I was tired of the smog, noise, and traffic. I enjoy seeing
beautiful trees around my home; the owners of those trees won’t cut them down, because
they prefer the beauty to the timber value.
I’d feel foolish, however, trying to tell other people that they should reorient their
lives to eliminate smog, noise, and traffic. Many people do prefer to live in Los Angeles
as it is; that’s why they’re there.
I take the various demands that I join causes with a grain of salt. I realize that the
people who lead these movements have their own personal objectives. Many of them
would be lost without their causes; that’s how they find their happiness. Where would the
consumer advocates be without General Motors? Or the employees of the cancer
organizations without smokers? Or the politicians without those “pressing, critical,
burning” issues?
All that is their business, but not necessarily yours or mine.
Burning issues are always presented in terms that make it appear that your
freedom is at stake. Well, it is. If you’re lured into devoting your precious life to the
resolution of social problems, that can end your freedom. You’ll carry the burden of
responsibility for all the problems of the world.
Is it possible that you’re assuming that once the various social issues are resolved,
you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your own life? If so, the lessons of history indicate
that those issues will always be with us in one form or another.
You’re not going to live forever. With the years ahead of you, why not
start now to concentrate on making your life as meaningful, free, exciting,
and joyous as possible?
You are the most important issue in the world. What happens in the social issues
is only incidental; to concentrate on them is to approach the matter much too
indirectly. What you do directly for yourself will have a far greater impact on your life
than what you do in response to the burning issues of society.
Make your life the issue.
“Devotion to the truth is the hallmark of morality; there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking.” - Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
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