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Use this golden rule to make people matter again

Can we run this world as though people matter? Of course we can. Henry Hazlitt showed us how, way back in 1946:

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups”

Read it again. Hazlitt gives us a simple rule for deciding whether a policy or act is worthwhile: does it impact positively on as many groups as possible in the economy (not just one group); and will its effects stay positive in the long term (not just immediately).

What if Kenya made policy decisions using this golden rule? The much-vaunted ‘one laptop per child’ proposal, for example, might pass muster on the first half of the rule (it is aimed at the many rather than the few); but it would struggle with the second half (it does not sound at all sustainable, and may fizzle out after tenders are signed).

Think about what successive governments have done, before and after independence. Have they really worked for all Kenyans, and for the long term? Quite the opposite: so many expenditures over the years have benefited very narrow interest groups; and few initiatives have brought lasting benefits.

Why else, 50 years after independence, are so many Kenyans facing famine every year? Because the entitlements to food are not widely spread. We have forgotten to look after the many, not just the few, and we do nothing for the long term – we just raise money for emergency food year after year. Hazlitt’s golden rule is ignored completely.

We’re good at criticizing government, but what about the way we run our organizations? Do we really organize them as though people matter? CEOs are very good at trumpeting “our people are our greatest asset,” and “our business is centred on customers,” but is there any real truth there? Why then are staff tossed out in every downturn, and customers gouged in the absence of meaningful competition?

Way too many companies are just vehicles for maximizing the returns to principal shareholders and senior executives, period. Customers are the suckers tricked into supplying the money; employees are the resources deployed to provide the labour. The real rewards accrue upstairs.

A great business doesn’t look anything like that. A great business follows the golden rule: it does things for the greater good of as many people as possible; and it aims to stick around for centuries, not just a few explosive years. In fact, modern business leaders should learn a great deal from nature. A business is an ecosystem that aims to keep many elements in harmony. Imbalance in the shared value system causes the entire setup to collapse, eventually.

As I have been writing on this page for a few weeks now, we have forgotten a central fact of life: human endeavour is about people, not numbers. It is about enrolling citizens and employees in a collective purpose, in which they participate with enthusiasm and shared meaning. It is not just about selling to customers, but bonding with them in a shared belief system. It is about spreading rewards, and leaving no one behind.

Sadly, that’s not how most of the world works today. We only sing these noble things in churches and temples and PR events, but we walk out ready to maximize personal gain in the shortest time possible, whatever it takes.

So if you wonder why we can’t save our trees and elephants, or why we can’t deal with insecurity, wonder no longer. It’s because we are not focused on the greater good for the greater time. It’s why we have angry and frustrated masses everywhere, and why the elite are increasingly jittery and scared. We break the golden rule at our peril.

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