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Developing a Better Product, or The Self As a Work of Art

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By Jeremy Shearmur with editorial input from David Schmidtz


The topic of personal development raises an issue so important that it merits a section of its own. It is best approached via an interesting theme in the history of classical liberalism: the idea of the self as a work of art – of oneself as being something upon which one works, creatively, over a lifetime. This is an interesting idea in its own right, and relevant to our discussion here.


First, we tend to look upon ourselves as involved in self-expression. But this seems to be a mistake, not only in terms of one’s self-understanding, but especially for the classical liberal. We are talking about a career here, not a hobby. You get paid to communicate, not to indulge yourself. If you cannot make your customers better off, then they should not continue to employ you. Of course, to get things done, you have to love the doing. And to love the doing, you have to do your work, your way. Just keep in mind that in this business, work involves communication, not just talking to yourself.


For the classical liberal, this point is more complex. We are, after all, committed to the ideas of voluntarism and free exchange. This pressures us to develop what others want. As classical liberals, we would have nothing but contempt for the manufacturer who produces a large quantity of unwanted goods, then whines for a government handout or for special consideration based on the work he put into them – when the real problem is that he did not perform proper market research and has produced something no one wants. There is a temptation, however, for us as individuals and scholars to behave like such a manufacturer and think that others should value us just because of the amount of work we have put into producing something.


I have emphasized the development of products. But the same, I would suggest, is true of people. If others are to enjoy our company, or employ us, they must value us as individuals as well. This means that we face a task of self-creation in respect to ourselves and the products we produce. All this may seem to be a strange way of looking at things and perhaps to suggest that we should become something purely artificial. It might also seem to suggest we should simply cultivate appearances, and garner the superficial approval of others. That is not the case. Rather, the task that each of us faces is to make our products, our ideas, and ourselves objects of value. Our ideas must compete in the marketplace and must have value to other people or else we have produced unwanted goods.


However, there is always the possibility that particular people with whom we work, or the standards under which they operate, will be corrupt. This is not a judgment for us to make lightly, and it does no good to rehearse arguments about all kinds of geniuses in history not being recognized by their contemporaries. While this might be true, the same could be said of all the cranks in history too! What will not do is to view ourselves as the ultimate judge, the one with all the right answers. If, however, you conclude that standards in the area in which you have an interest are hopelessly corrupt, then the thing to do is not waste your time with that field but instead turn to an alternate area in which you can make your contribution.


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