In 2000, Eckhart Tolle published The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Its 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 Caplans book club on Dale Carnegies 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.
Thats 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 peoples mental and social worlds are not about you. Most importantly, other people have rights.
Ill 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. Weve 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 were really honest with ourselves, we can probably all think of times when we have been that person. Its inconsistent with respect for peoples dignity. It treats them as means to our ends, not as ends of their own.
A lot of Dale Carnegies 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 wouldnt spend nearly as much time and money listening. Facebook and Google wouldnt 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 wasnt 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 cant refuse. No, thank you is always an option.
This explains Dale Carnegies success and more generally the success of the commercial society. All of Carnegies 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 betterthe 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 aboutand 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. Thats 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.