Dogma Premise # 21
The private profit motive results in greater productivity than any other motivation.
Psychologists study what motivates people, and the effectiveness of different motivators under different circumstances. For example, food is a motivator for someone who is starving, but the effect is decidedly less intense for someone who is on a diet.
Other well-known motivators include the prospect of wealth, honor, beauty, power, duty, love, fame, affection, reputation, fear, entertainment, vengeance, and more. Sometimes people do things just because they want to have fun.
If profit were considered the the greatest motivator of all, it might be because money can buy any of the others, such as fame, beauty or influence. In public, we reject this idea with aphorisms like “Money can’t buy happiness,” and “Money can’t buy love.” Indeed, a well-known series of commercials for MasterCard purports to list “priceless” things that money cannot buy. Moreover, our culture assigns diminished status to successes that have been purchased rather than earned, causing the oft-heard defensive response that someone didn’t “buy their way” into a school or position of influence.
And yet the aphorism probably exists because the reality so frequently seems the opposite, so the suggestion that profit and wealth are an effective proxy for all other motivations has to be taken seriously, despite the frequent protestations.
The simplest response would be that using wealth as a proxy motivator doesn’t make sense in most instances. If one wants to be seen as honorable, it seems like in most instances it would be more efficient and effective to simply behave honorably, rather than to earn a great deal of wealth and then contrive a plan to transmute the wealth into a perception of honor.
Another problem with wealth as a proxy is that even if some of the underlying motivations can be purchased, they cannot be purchased infinitely. So, for example, if beauty can be purchased through surgery and equipment, the task might be complete for most people in a hundred thousand dollars, or certainly no more than a half-million dollars. Accumulating additional wealth, if the goal is to beautify oneself, would have to result in severely diminished effectiveness.
In fact, you would expect that profit as a motivator would dramatically lose its effectiveness for very wealthy people. Some noteworthy executives have taken token salaries of $1 because they don’t care about money, or at least don’t long for any more money than they already have. Famous are the millionaires who are said to “have everything,” and in fact give away large portions of their wealth. Famous are the ascetics who live lives of relative material deprivation, intentionally forgoing all kinds of worldly goods that they could purchase but do not.
There is no denying that an additional dollar is valuable even for a millionaire, and even for an ascetic who might be glad for the chance to donate it to a worthy cause. But it is hard to believe that the the prospect of the millionth dollar is nearly as motivating as the first dollar. Instead, we should believe that money for the wealthy is like food for the well-fed -- not the most important thing.
So profit as a universal motivator seems contrary to both reason, advice, and experience. To this it may be added that it cannot be universal in the sense of consistent across people, circumstances, time, and culture. Someone in their youth may be more motivated by passion than greed; the same person in old age may be motivated more by the desire to cultivate relationships than the desire to accumulate wealth. Most ambitions benefit from access to a certain amount of wealth, but do not require vast quantities of wealth.
Finally, people’s motivations are in part culturally determined, so the prospect of infinite wealth should be more motivating to a Wall Street Banker than to a Tibetan Buddhist. To the extent that people’s motivations are determined by their culture and upbringing, and Capitalism purports to rely on people’s motivations for its justification, then Capitalism's primary justification is not an economic principle but a cultural assumption that may be more or less true in different places and at different times.
Moreover, if Capitalism's primary justification is merely a cultural preference, then Capitalism does not reflect human nature or economic necessity, and must be discarded along with any other bad cultural norm, like racism, sexism, or cannibalism, if the results of Capitalism were improper.
Indeed, the consistent results of Capitalism -- inequality, poverty, and dangerous exploitation of people and the environment -- are very improper.
Capitalism's reliance on the intrinsic greed of humans as a primary motivator is empirically false, which means that a different economic system based on different motivations may generate results that are more economically efficient.
Moreover, to the extent that this core assumption is true, Capitalism's reliance on human greed as a motivator means that Capitalism is merely a cultural norm, not a reflection of human nature or economic necessity, and therefore the promised outcomes are as contingent as the cultures in which it operates.