Lasting Value

People are always looking to make money, even the ones that aren’t actively and greedily fixated on money as a goal. If you make too much or too little of it, there are ethical questions raised about whether or not you deserve it.

People often judge others based on their success or failure. You see a rich man and argue they should “give to the poor” as if the money is yours to distribute. Or you look at a homeless person on the street and fault them for being lazy, as if you knew what got them there. Judging others in this manner cannot be said to be an endearing trait, but this shouldn’t preclude us from observing society as a whole and asking ourselves when it is ethical to make money. Does the manner of making money count? Why are some ways better than others? Is the thief who gives his wealth to the poor on ethically solid ground?

I posit that there are essentially four categories of methods for acquiring wealth.

Builders create objects of lasting value – these may be tangible or intangible – and acquire wealth because people desire these objects.

Solvers provide immediate solutions to systemic inefficiencies, and acquire wealth because people pay for the convenience.

Gamblers make bets on how the world is going to evolve and acquire wealth by reaping the rewards when their bets pay off.

Cheaters operate outside of the system, and acquire wealth by breaking the rules that everyone else is playing by.

As an entrepreneur who wants to build a business, you should probably shoot for the first category. You can choose to be a solver for some time and use it as a stepping stone, but that only lasts until someone else comes along and one-ups you. If you want to be successful long term, you will need to build something of lasting value.

You probably should not build a business as a gambler. In an environment where information is uniformly distributed, the gamble is statistically unlikely to pay off. The gamblers are fighting a losing battle, as the odds are against them and the house always wins. To use information asymmetry effectively in the long run, you would need to be a cheater instead.

The cheaters are arguably the most interesting category of the lot. It is necessary to define the ‘system’ to understand what it means to operate outside of it. For instance, a tax evader may be operating outside of the¬†legal system, but in a corrupt society where everyone evades taxes and few people are punished for it, the ethical boundary may be different from the legal one. And consequently, a cheater in one system may be playing by the rules in another.

You probably should not build a business as a cheater, because someone, somewhere, is going to come after you. A snitch may be doing the right thing, legally speaking, but caught between the two systems – the law and the mafia – they don’t fare too well no matter what they do.