July/August 2001 -- Students at Harvard and activists throughout the country have been fighting lately for a so-called "living wage" of about $10 an hour for blue-collar workers in their communities. But if these protesters want to make the world a better place, why do they stop there? What about the quarter of the world's population that lives on less than a dollar a day, whose members cannot afford the televisions and telephones purchased by so many Americans making less than this "living wage"? And why only $10 an hour? Clearly, restricting this campaign to a specific group and a specific wage is arbitrary. If improving the welfare of needy people is the activists' true concern, they should fight for Harvard to give away its entire $19 billion endowment to the world's hungriest people.
But wait, you say, if Harvard gave away its endowment, it would be no more. True, but who needs Harvard, or any educational institution, for that matter? What values do they produce in a world where people are starving?
The answer is that educational institutions produce producers, and Harvard, especially, produces leaders. Harvard's founders wanted to make American society a better place for all, and they had an implicit choice: to found a charity or to found a school. They decided to found a school because they saw that with the amount of money that could feed the bodies of a couple of homeless people for a few years, they could feed the body and the mind of one student for a few years—and this student would likely become a leader who would create enough wealth to increase the welfare of thousands. (This is not to say that no one should found charities; it is only to say that Harvard is in the position to do more good by educating people than giving away its money.) Harvard has produced no less than six of our nation's presidents and thirty Nobel laureates. Like other institutions of higher learning, it has also produced thousands of doctors, lawyers, and business executives who have enlarged the pie for all. Imagine what the world would be like today if Harvard's administrations had told its would-be producers and leaders, "Sorry, we're using the money we could have used to fund your education to feed the homeless instead." (Harvard pays most of the educational costs of students who receive financial aid and almost half of the educational costs of students who do not.) Undoubtedly, many more people would be homeless.
But wait, you say, the activists are not trying to cheat anyone out of an education—they are simply demanding that Harvard pay its janitors a couple dollars more per hour. Yes, but Harvard's rightful purpose is to provide the best education it can for its students. Therefore, it ought to pay its workers whatever wages produce the best educational opportunities for its students. Every dollar Harvard expends otherwise is a dollar lost from the production of producers and leaders.
Janitors keep the schools' rooms clean so that students can learn, and Harvard should pay the wages necessary to ensure that it has enough janitors to keep its learning environment sanitary. (A comparable standard applies to professors, who should be paid as much as—but no more than—it takes to entice them to teach rather than pursuing more lucrative careers in business.) Janitors can then decide for themselves whether it is in their self-interest to accept the wages Harvard offers—to treat them otherwise is to treat them as children, not adults. This is the meaning of "an honest day's pay for an honest day's work," also known as the trader principle.
But, one might object, Harvard is not a business; it is a public-service institution. In fact, it is both. Donors to Harvard want to help people, undoubtedly, but they specifically want to help educate people—otherwise they would not invest in a university. Ideally, donors want to help educate others for the egoistic reason that it is in their self-interest to live in a society with educated people. But, in any case, Harvard has been able to fulfill its donors' goals so well only because it has managed itself with good business sense, in spite of its non-profit status. Like any business, it strives to produce its product as efficiently as it can, and this means not wasting money on things that do not improve its means of production. As soon as it stops thinking that way—which is what the "living wage" activists are demanding—Harvard will cease to be the leading producer of leaders and producers that it is, and everyone—janitors included—will be worse off.
So why are Harvard's activists fighting for an ultimately destructive policy? The answer can be found in their methods. Hundreds of students—ostensibly the brightest young minds in the nation—have spent their time not thinking, but chanting, yelling, singing, beating drums, and waving banners. These are not acts of reasoning and persuasion, but expressions of tribal emotion.
Watching and talking to these students, it was clear to me that the primary cause of their emotion was not a desire to improve the world, but a desire to promote the ethics of altruism and collectivism. Specifically, they wanted to alleviate their guilt for being "privileged" students of a prestigious university by forcing this university to sacrifice its resources to the poorest members of its community. And this is not surprising, given the altruistic and collectivistic ethics promoted by their professors, who lent overwhelming support to the campaign both inside and outside of the classroom. If the students had used their reason to confront the issue of a "living wage" and judged it by the life-based ethics of egoism and individualism, they would have upheld the virtues of justice and productiveness. By doing that, they would have helped make the world a better place for themselves, for their university—and for Harvard's janitors.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.