This is the 20th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Never talk to me about profit,’ Jawaharlal Nehru once said to an industrialist friend of his. ‘It is a dirty word.’
Nehru’s sentiments were understandable in those times, and his sentiments were noble. India had just rid itself of the British, who had come to India ostensibly to do business and had left it impoverished. Nehru, who had played a notable role in the freedom struggle, had spent his formative years in England learning from the Fabian Socialists, as well as from Howard Laski, the Marxist professor at LSE who had a greater influence on modern India than Mahatma Gandhi, through students such as Nehru and VK Krishna Menon. The Soviet Union seemed to be a model to admire, America itself vastly expanded the role of the state after the Great Depression, and the top-down command-and-control economy must have seemed incredibly attractive to Nehru. The center had to hold. The profit motive was evil. Those exploitative capitalists had to be kept in check.
It is not fair to judge Nehru in hindsight, and he was right about other things that mattered. But he was wrong about this. Profit is the secret behind all prosperity. And it is a distrust of the profit motive that has kept this country poor.
The fundamental fallacy that Nehru committed was of looking at the economy as a zero-sum game. By that thinking, if someone is winning, someone else must be losing. If the industrialist makes a profit, someone else is getting exploited. But this is not the way the world works. All trade is a positive-sum game; and indeed, it is not possible for one person alone to make a profit in a transaction.
I am fond of illustrating this by citing what the writer John Stossel calls the Double Thank-You Moment. When you buy a cup of coffee at a Cafe Coffee Day, you say ‘thank you’ when you are handed your cup of coffee. And the cashier says ‘thank you’ when you hand over your money. This double ‘thank-you’ illustrates that both of you benefited from the transaction. Both of you profited.
This is, simply put, the root cause of prosperity. Every single voluntary transaction that takes place makes both parties better off, and increases the sum total of value in the world. Equally, every impediment that anyone places on the ability of consenting adults to trade freely with each other reduces the notional value in the world, and is an impediment to growth. It stands to reason, then, that trade should lead to prosperity, and that economic freedom should be correlated with a nation’s wealth. Does the data bear this out? You bet it does.
First up, I urge you to consider this chart. (Here’s the source.) It shows the wealth of the world as a flat line for centuries, until 1800. And then, boom, the world economy takes off in a spurt that economists call the Hockey Stick of Human Prosperity. It correlates perfectly with the explosion of markets across the world, of double-thank-you moments.
But it doesn’t take off uniformly across countries. Free markets are a necessary condition for prosperity, so let me now draw your attention to another chart. This one, from the Index of Economic Freedom 2015 brought out by the Heritage Foundations, shows a clear correlation between economic freedom and the wealth of nations. The freer you are, the wealthier you tend to be. (Also, the freer you are, the faster you grow.)
Forget the data, you say. Capitalists are exploitative. What about the low wages paid by Walmart? What about sweat shops run by large multinationals in third world countries like Bangladesh, where workers toil jn inhumane conditions? Isn’t that the profit motive at work?
Yes, it is. And I deeply admire Walmart and every company that runs a sweatshop in a poor country. That is because the people who work in Walmart and in those sweatshops do so because it is the best option open to them. They are not fools. They are choosing to work where they do because they deem all other alternatives to be worse, and those evil capitalist behemoths should actually be thanked for actually providing them an option that is better than the best option otherwise available to them. We condescend to those workers when we say they are being exploited. (Indeed, it is possible that we are exploiting them by using them to feed our sanctimony.)
This doesn’t apply to slavery and trafficking, of course, for by free markets I mean markets where consenting adults trade freely under the rule of law. Also, let us not conflate rent-seeking and profit-seeking. Many large companies get together with government to put restrictions on markets so that their market share is protected from competition. Such protectionism hurts the common consumer, and amounts to a redistribution of wealth from the poor at large to rich special-interest groups. Big companies are often the biggest enemies of free markets, and capitalism often unfairly gets a bad name because it is confused with crony capitalism – or ‘crapitalism’ as some call it.
To sum up, the profit motive is not something nefarious, but is actually noble. You can only profit in a free market by improving someone else’s life. And the more you profit, the greater the good you do in the world, the more the value you create. Profit, indeed, is the purest form of philanthropy.
I must admit here the very slight, teeny-weeny possibility that I am being unjust to Nehru. Maybe he had a mischievous glint in his eye when he said that profit was a ‘dirty word’. I can imagine him sidling up to Edwina Mountbatten at a party, gently putting his hand on her waist, and whispering to her, ‘Edwina, my dear, would you like to, ahem, profit with me?’ That certainly could have led to a double thank-you moment.