Quite a few well known rich people aren't satisfied with being rich and being able to do all the things they believe are important. They want to advertise this and to take up the role of teachers to the rest of us. The Hungarian born billionaire financier George Soros is no exception.
In a frankly narcissistic essay for The New York Review of Books (June 23, 2011) titled "My Philanthropy," Soros evidently reaches out to the readers of that very snooty, elitist publication to make sure everyone who reads the piece will know how "virtuous" he is. That is to say, virtuous by the standards of a morality that requires us all to serve humanity first, before we take care of ourselves. Soros writes:
"I have made it a principle to pursue my self-interest in my business, subject to legal and ethical limitations, and to be guided by the public interest as a public intellectual and philanthropist. If the two are in conflict, the public interest ought to prevail. I do not hesitate to advocate policies that are in conflict with my business interests. I firmly believe that our democracy would function better if more people adopted this principle. And if they care about a well-functioning democracy, they ought to abide by this principle even if others do not. Just a small number of public spirited figures could make a difference."
Sounds noble, if you believe it is meaningful. But "noble" is a matter of what values human beings should champion and promote. That's why Soros' declaration is dubious. It, first of all, makes it possible for him to look good in general without having to do much good in particular. You see, serving the public interest is one of those objectives that everyone likes to be associated with but has no idea what it actually requires of someone. Is the engineer who makes a locomotive run smoothly serving the public interest? Is the artist who paints a stunning landscape, a composer who creates a wonderful symphony, a doctor who cures someone's disease, a shoe repairer who fixes people's footware, a poet who moves us to tears – are these folks serving the public interest? Surely all those who welcome what they do are members of the public, so they are in fact serving the public interest.
Or would they only qualify as such if they made huge sacrifices, gave up all the benefits that came to them from doing all these things? Why? Why are only other people members of the public? If I serve my own interest, I am serving the interest of a member of the public too. So what on earth is serving the public interest? Who is it who studies that issue and answers this question reliably, dependably, competently?
Well, as the classical liberal political economists have established a long time ago, serving the public interest is in fact best done by serving one's own. That's because there is no general public interest apart from following certain very abstract principles that contain few if any specifics.
The American Founders gave a good clue when they proposed that the purpose of government is to secure the rights of all the citizens of the country. These are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How would securing these rights be in the public interest? Because being secure in those rights is to everyone's best interest. You, I, our neighbors, the shoe repairer, the physician, the artist, the scientist – all these and millions of others can embark upon serving their interest if no one is authorized to impose upon them burdens they have not freely assumed.
In the case of George Soros this would imply that he serves the public interest precisely by doing whatever actually, really, truly serves his own interest without doing violence to others. As Adam Smith pointed out, he might not even know that he is doing such a public service but in fact that is all there is to doing one's public service – making sure of what is in one's proper interest and making sure that the freedom to pursue it is secured for everyone. That means that the pursuit of one's self-interest, provided it really is one's self-interest, ultimately amounts also to serving the public interest. No conflict there at all, contrary to the picture George Soros imagines, whereby the two can be in conflict. No they cannot, not if properly understood.
What can be inflict, of course, is what some people want or desire and their real interest, including then the public interest. When I work hard to educate my students or to explain the principles of human liberty to readers of my books and articles, I serve my own interest as well as the public interest. And when I fail in serving my genuine self-interest, I am also undermining the public interest, the interest of the public to which I belong.
So Mr. Soros should stop his hubris about serving some vague public interest first, before his self-interest. He should stick to figuring out what is truly in his interest and go for it. Then the public interest will take care of itself.