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Are ‘Idealists’ Better Than Everyone Else?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/David Keyton

“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than by their results,” said Milton Friedman. The fact that someone claims noble, idealistic motives is often reason enough for them to receive recognition for what they do. Even critics of Greta Thunberg, for example, are quick to praise her “idealism.” Regardless of what her actions actually achieve, people tend to admire her idealism. In contrast, people with a “materialistic” attitude are branded as superficial and anyone who strives for fame is swiftly labeled a pathological narcissist.


The German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki takes a very different view: “Respectable people work in pursuit of glory and money. Indecent people want to change the world and save others.” Of course, he is exaggerating and a host of counter-examples immediately spring to mind: Jesus Christ and Albert Schweitzer are among the countless idealists who have changed the world for the better, while innumerable power-hungry and corrupt dictators have been responsible for much suffering and misfortune.

Nevertheless, Reich-Ranicki has got one thing right: The multitude of idealists who wanted to improve the world and redeem people – and in doing so delivered immeasurable suffering – is long and includes mass murderers such as Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong. 

In his speeches, Adolf Hitler railed against the bourgeoisie, accusing them of materialism and a lack of idealism. Hitler wanted to build his party as a fanatical fighting force of idealists. “Anyone who today fights on our side,” he proclaimed in a speech to SA fighters in 1922, “should not expect to win great laurels; far less can he win great material goods – it is more likely that he will end up in jail. What we need today is a leader who is an idealist, if only because he must lead those against whom it would seem everything has conspired. But therein lies the immeasurable source of our strength.” Hitler didn’t attract the support of large sections of the German population in the years 1929 to 1932 by proclaiming anti-Semitic slogans, but because he advocated a social utopia, the Volksgemeinschaft, that would break down elitism and unite Germans across class divides. In this case as so often throughout history, idealism led to dictatorship and the formation of a murderous regime. 


On the other hand, however, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of entrepreneurs whose “materialistic” pursuit of profit has significantly improved people’s lives. Thanks largely to Sam Walton, the Waltons became the richest family in the world. And he became rich by establishing a chain of stores, Walmart, that has served millions of people by offering high-quality produce at reasonable prices. Just take a glance at the list of the richest people in the world and you will quickly see that most became rich as entrepreneurs and innovators who invented new products and services that improved the lives of people all around the world. This is true for the Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and the Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin.

Steve Jobs is probably an exception among entrepreneurs because he deliberately marketed himself as a world-changer – which he undoubtedly was. He recognized that by appealing to higher values and ideals he could inspire his employees to excel and turn consumers into disciples. He styled the rivalry between Apple and IBM as a battle between “good” and “evil.” Accordingly, only Apple could possibly prevent IBM from dominating the computer market and creating the dark age envisioned by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984

The founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, ended up as one of Jobs’ fiercest rivals, although they did collaborate closely for a number of years. Gates once observed, “Steve was in ultimate pied piper mode, proclaiming how the Mac will change the world and overworking people like mad, with incredible tensions and complex personal relationships.” Jobs uttered one of his most famous sentences in 1983 when he succeeded in convincing John Sculley, president of Pepsi-Cola, to become Apple’s new CEO: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” He convinced another early employee to come to Apple with these words: “We are inventing the future. Think about surfing the front edge of a wave. It’s really exhilarating. Now think about dog-paddling at the tail end of that wave. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun. Come down here and make a dent in the universe.” These are the kinds of words you would expect from a guru rather than a corporate leader. In fact, “make a dent in the universe” became one of Jobs’ go-to formulations. Another employee reported that Jobs repeatedly rallied his employees with sentences like these: “Let’s make a dent in the universe.” “We’ll make it so important that it will make a dent in the universe.”


Most entrepreneurs change the world without ever making such a big fuss about it. And perhaps a number of them really are “only” driven by the pursuit of profit. But in their pursuit of profit they create more benefits for the world at large than many “idealists” who set out to save people and make the world a better place. As Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations: “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

The author is a historian, sociologist and author of the book The Power of Capitalism

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