It’s graduation season and that means commencement addresses. Recently President Obama spoke at the commencements of Arizona State University and the University of Notre Dame. All across the country, distinguished alumni and other major and minor luminaries are speaking to the Class of 2009.
A common theme in commencement addresses is that graduates, armed with degrees that frequently cost more than all but the very nicest homes, must leave college and go forth to serve mankind. Put aside your selfish pursuit of wealth, these young men and women are told. Forgo the hollow trappings of success in favor of the satisfaction of having lifted up the downtrodden. Older, wiser heads are standing in the lecterns at commencement ceremonies intoning that graduates be not seduced by greed. Your duty, says the commencement speaker, is to put aside selfish pursuits in order that the ‘greater good’ may be served.
To these wise words I offer a word of my own.
Balderdash. (And I cleaned that up.)
My dear graduates, you have no duty other than to go out and make of yourself all that you can while you are young and the opportunity is ripe. The high-sounding talk of subsuming your own self-interested pursuits in order that society will be somehow better served is so much piffle.
Quite the contrary. Your pursuit of your dreams constitutes the perennial renewal of the world’s last, best hope. It has been this way since the miraculous American experiment began.
A free society is best served when its individual members, acting in self-interest, go for what they want with every fiber in their bodies and without interference.
In New York City there is Carnegie Hall. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania there is the Carnegie Mellon University. All around the world there are public libraries that either bear Carnegie’s name or were established by his generosity.
None of these institutions, all of which serve the greater good, came about because Andrew Carnegie put aside his ambitions. These institutions exist because Andrew Carnegie, the son of working class Scottish immigrants, set out to succeed. The 119-year artistic legacy of Carnegie Hall, the site of countless world premieres and virtuoso performances, is the happy by-product of Andrew Carnegie’s self-interested exercise of his freedom.
No people have ever been more successful than the American people. No people have ever been more generous. These truths are not coincidental.
It is a uniquely American thing that whenever an American hits it big, one of the first things he does is look for ways to give the money away. All over the country, there are hospitals and schools and libraries and concert halls that bear the names of successful Americans.
But it’s not just charity. Who can argue that providing high quality, challenging, well-paid employment doesn’t serve the greater good? Politicians always promise to create jobs but they never do.
Apple Computer founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, on the other hand, have created thousands of jobs. Is that because Jobs and Wozniak put aside their ambitions? Again, quite the contrary. It’s because Jobs and Wozniak pursued their dream to produce a computer that anyone could use that these men are now billionaires and 35,000 people now have good jobs.
Whenever one of you graduates succeeds sufficiently to have the money and the courage to go out on your own and start a business, you will be serving the greater good. Because it is small businesses, and not politicians, that actually create jobs. And it’s small businesses that are today’s seeds of tomorrow’s world-leading corporations.
So Class of 2009, here is my advice. Listen politely to your commencement speaker. Party hearty afterwards.
And then get out there and start going after whatever it is that turns you on. Beyond a basic generous spirit, don’t be distracted by those calling on you to forgo your so-called greed and selfishness. Figure out what it is that you want out of life and go for it with everything you have.
So far as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless goes, let’s not forget that no society has ever done more for its poor than America. It is our freedom to succeed that, for the first time in all of human history, made poverty the exception rather than the rule.
To the extent that we will always have problems to address, we will always need the fruits of the success of the next graduating class.
So Class of 2009, get out there and give ’em hell.
We’re counting on you.