The common sense view is that we should live by pursuing our own interests, without hurting others, by physical force or fraud. Most people recognize that if we don’t pursue our values—such as food, shelter, health, work, recreation—we cannot survive and be happy.
Why are the intellectuals’ views wrong? The idea that people’s interests automatically conflict and that pursuing self-interest means exploiting others is truly a straw man. It completely misses what self-interest actually means: pursuing one’s values—values that meet the requirements of human survival and flourishing. Pursuing self-interest is absolutely necessary if we want to survive and flourish, and most people know that simply from observation.
Exploiting others through force or fraud is not in our self-interest. Such action would invite others to do the same or get justice through the legal system, thus jeopardizing our values. Even if we derived some temporary gain, say, from deceiving others, such a gain would not be sustainable, as any pyramid investment schemer or other fraudsters eventually learn. As shown by Ayn Rand, people’s rational interests do no not conflict. Giving a raise to a productive employee does not conflict with the interests of the manager or the shareholders. Quite the contrary, it benefits them if the raise keeps the employee motivated and deters him from joining a competitor. As a consequence, the company will create more value, making possible a bonus to the manager and dividends to the shareholders. A bonus to a deserving manager would similarly promote the interests of the other parties.