In 2002, the New York Times1 reported a story about Akhtar Muhammed, an Afghanistan farmer living under Taliban rule, selling his farm animals and his personal belongings to feed his wife and ten children. Eventually, with the hunger outlasting the money he received, he had no choice but to trade two of his ten children for bags of wheat. They were 5 and 10 years old.
Similar stories emerge periodically from the third world that shockingly contrasts lives of desperation to our lives of plenty in the first world. Journalists often write these stories to elicit sympathy, compassion and guilt-unearned guilt. Unfortunately, they usually ignore the glaring issue of why such primitive desperation can continue to exist in our wealthy global community. They are too close to the trees to see the forest, or to stop and examine why it is the way it is. Obviously, it is not national poverty-as is commonly assumed. The Taliban government had plenty of money from rich Saudis and other sympathetic sources to finance terrorism. Similarly, many of the most desperate countries in Africa are those with the largest oil revenues.
The fundamental cause of sub-human existence in the 21st century is the lack of individual freedom to produce. It is the free minds of entrepreneurs and business people who produce the food and commercial products that allow people to crawl out of this kind of misery and privation. Entrepreneurial business people moved us from the horse to the automobile, from the abacus to the laptop, and from the cave to the skyscraper-and it was not done with enslavement, either to a religion or to the state.
Creative, entrepreneurial people produce best in a market free of regulation, in which investors, employers, employees and customers can voluntarily negotiate with each other and voluntarily agree to deal or walk away-and in a society governed by clear, objective laws against force and fraud. A mind does not produce unless it is free to pursue its own aspirations and happiness. This was not possible in Akhtar Muhammad's world. Instead, his life belonged to some mystical god… or the state… or the local warlord. Trading children for food-or worse-are the consequences when such a system and philosophy is allowed to progress to its ultimate outcome. And this is not just a theory-it is happening today in many countries ruled by despots, tyrants and religious mystics trying to implement their socialist ideals, despite a long litany of failures throughout history. During the past 30 years I have personally seen and experienced several examples of the desperation and suffering produced by these failures.
After the disaster on September 11, 2001, the world rightly expressed appreciation for the actions of policemen, firemen and the military for protecting our way of life. Similarly, we should also show appreciation and gratitude for the business people-the producers-who created it in the first place. Thousands of producers died in that disaster-the very people who make our way of life a reality every day. And it is the business people who built the World Trade Center, and who will rebuild it again.
Business people, like all citizens, must be held accountable for their behavior, but it is unfair to habitually cast them as villains in our TV shows and movies, and condemn and denounce them all whenever a few are dishonest or when the price of gasoline rises. Instead, we should pay tribute to those forgotten heroes instead of taking them for granted and portraying them as evil. Thomas Edison was named the "Man of the Century" a few years ago. It was an excellent choice-and every time we turn on the lights we should say a silent "Thank You" in his honour.
As a businessman, I am proud of the contributions made by the organizations that I have led, and I am indebted to the business leaders who gave me the opportunities to benefit and contribute.
Most of us depend on business leaders, either directly or indirectly, for our jobs and the livelihood that allows us to improve our quality of life, one that prevents us from having to trade our children for food.
The greatest humanitarian gesture one can make is to give someone an opportunity to be rewarded for doing productive work so he can support his family. Business people do that every day, and it is a more virtuous act than a handout given by government or the most charitable foundation.
1 Children as Barter in a Famished Land" by Barry Bearak, The New York Times, March 8, 2002:
The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.