You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.
These lines are from a letter Ludwig von Mises sent to Ayn Rand after he had read her novel Atlas Shrugged. This might be a case of Mises’s misanthropic strain showing, but his words – however harsh – are true. The reason ordinary people in the capitalist West are so prosperous (and were so prosperous back in the 1950s) is not due to their virtues, abilities, or deservingness, but because they live in an advanced capitalist economy.
Our prosperity is the result of hundreds of years of scientific, technological and economic advancement, which has been largely driven by the ingenuity of great scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Not only is the average Joe not being exploited, he is in fact paid far more than he deserves. Likewise, Joe’s employer makes far more on employing Joe than he deserves. Modern Western civilization is a gift that none of us deserve, not even the greatest minds among us.
In the real world, solitary geniuses like Hank Rearden or John Galt who invent ground-breaking technologies solely by their own hard work and the power of their intellect are exceedingly rare. Far more often, scientific, technological, and entrepreneurial breakthroughs are the result of an iterative, cooperative, and competitive process, rather than the work of a lone genius. If Isaac Newton, one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, admited that he merely stood on the shoulders of giants, it is certainly true for everyone else.
If none of us deserve our prosperity, the least we can do is to show some gratitude and not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That means we should defend the capitalist market economy and Western civilization, which gave rise to it. We should honour the great men who have built this civilization and be grateful for the legacy they have bestowed on us. Instead, we get entitled whiners who dismiss their greatest benefactors as “dead white males” and attack capitalism and Western civilization using the very freedom and prosperity these have granted to them. I can certainly empathise with Mises’s misanthropy.
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