August 27, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

In 2000, Eckhart Tolle published The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. It’s an influential contribution to the modern emphasis on “mindfulness.” In 2014, James and Claudia Azula Altucher riffed on this title and explained The Power of No: Because One Little Word Can Bring Health, Abundance, and Happiness. “No” is the most powerful word in your capitalist vocabulary, and when we embraced it with a gusto, the world changed.

During the early part of the pandemic I participated in Bryan Caplan’s book club on Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I have been struck by just how fundamentally others-oriented you have to be in order to win friends and influence people. It really is a book of ethics for a commercial society. It recognizes that other people are not mere means to our ends, and if we want others to do something that we think is worth doing, we have to persuade them that it is, in fact, worth doing.

That’s a real revelation for some people. You are not the center of the universe. You do not have the starring role in the cosmic drama. You are not as smart as you think you are. Other people’s mental and social worlds are not about you. Most importantly, other people have rights.

I’ll write that again. Most importantly, other people have rights. They are not yours to use. Their time is not yours to dispose of. They have goals, hopes, dreams, and plans which are not yours to obstruct no matter how worthy or noble your vision for the future or how very desperate the people you want to help happen to be.

For all of our cognitive imperfections, people are pretty good at spotting charlatans and fakers. We’ve all had the conversation with someone who just wants to press a business card into your hand or someone who wants you to be so very impressed with how profound, erudite, and learned they are. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we can probably all think of times when we have been that person. It’s inconsistent with respect for people’s dignity. It treats them as means to our ends, not as ends of their own.

A lot of Dale Carnegie’s advice is really hard to fake. Virtuous characters are difficult to build. This has, I think, an interesting implication for advertising. If it were so easy to manipulate people, advertisers probably wouldn’t spend nearly as much time and money listening. Facebook and Google wouldn’t be as valuable as they are. 

The power of “no” in a commercial society represents the nearly-limitless difference between what Deirdre McCloskey calls the “Bourgeois Era” and everything that has come before it. Under the Aristocratic, Blue-Blood Deal, for example, the proper duty of the soul was to obey those who were better than you by dint of birth and blood. “No” wasn’t an option because the jail or the rack or the gallows awaited you for your insubordination. In a commercial society, however, everything is an exercise in persuasion because there is no such thing in a market economy as “an offer you can’t refuse.” “No, thank you” is always an option.

This explains Dale Carnegie’s success and more generally the success of the commercial society. All of Carnegie’s insights derive from the fact that other people have the right to say “no” to your offer. You must, therefore, persuade them that you can and will actually make their lives better. This often means persuading them that you are the kind of person who will make their lives better–the kind of person your prospective customers would like to reward.

Adam Smith explained it brilliantly and beautifully early on in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations when he points out that we have constant, practically unlimited occasions for other people to help us, and it is “vain to expect it from their benevolence alone.” He points out, in a commercial society, that we appeal not to others’ humanity, but to their self-love. We “never talk to them of our own necessities,” he writes, “but of their advantages.” Some people think it seems mercenary, but I wonder: with a practically-infinite number of people who want my attention or my efforts or what have you, how am I to decide who to serve? Importantly, how do I keep myself from being run into the ground by others’ requests? Simple: I look to those who can best help me advance my goals. The long-run result is that I am better equipped to do more of the things and support more of the causes I care about–and of course, I am able to do this because other people insist on my helping them do more of the things they care about as a precondition for cooperation.

“But if everyone did that, then there would no longer be an advantage to doing what I need to do to win friends and influencing people.” That’s very true, just like there is no advantage to using a cost-minimizing technology if all your competitors are using that same technology. There is a disadvantage to not doing so, and in the long run, the real winners are the consumers. Once we abandon a false and failed zero-sum worldview and realize just how much abundance is available for everyone, we will embrace winning friends, influencing people, and recognizing others’ right to say “no” to any offer.

My book Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World (co-authored with Deirdre McCloskey) is available for preorder wherever books are sold.

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

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