Moral Duty

Some Advice to the Graduating Class of 2009

It seems odd to write advice “to the graduating class of 2009” when I myself am one of the graduates. If you’re reading this during Commencement, I am currently somewhere between Dublin and Dubai, about to begin my new life as a consultant in the Middle East. When I started writing for The Tech back in September, I’d hoped to lay out the beliefs that make me a conservative. Nineteen articles later, I’ve commented on the 2008 election, written policy pieces on everything from education to health care to economics to foreign policy, and even tossed in a few articles on my favorite subject, energy — but I still haven’t gotten to write that defining piece that goes beyond policy prescriptions to core political philosophy. This is the 20th and final article that I’ll written for The Tech. I guess it’s now or never.

My advice is simple: Work hard. Save. Invest. Go out into the world and create as much prosperity as you can.

Maybe this sounds crass. Our generation has been taught that an obsession with material things is unhealthy, that profit is a dirty word, and that those who seek wealth are shallow and self-serving. But I think it is the opposite way around. I believe in free markets. I believe that, when free markets work properly, the wages and rewards of a job reflect the social good that job provides. If you’re a burger-flipper, the wages you are paid reflect the worth of the product you helped create. If you’re a farmer, the price of the food you sell reflects the benefit you’ve provided for others. If you’re a consultant, the bonus you receive at the end of the year reflects the wealth you’ve generated by improving a process or helping guide a decision. That’s the beauty of a free market: Each man is rewarded according to the good he provides to society; his self-interests are aligned to encourage him to do as much for his fellow man as he can.

There will always be those who denounce this, who claim that it goes against some moral principle to devote one’s life to making money, that free markets are a tool for the rich to exploit the poor. In America, we have that luxury — to pretend that material progress does not matter, that it is a distraction from our true purpose as human beings. But for most of the world this is not the case. For those who go without food or water or shelter, material progress is everything. For those whose grasp is slipping on the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there can be no higher purpose than economic growth. When placed in this context, it seems criminal for graduates in our position to do anything but find the job that pays the highest wages and work as hard as we can.

I’d like to believe that I got to and through MIT on merit, that it was purely by the sweat of my brow and natural skill that I advanced to where I am today … but it was more chance than merit. Simply the circumstance of being born an American ensured that I would be given opportunities that the rest of the world can only dream of. Having a stable family and a good high school added to the advantages. And by getting into MIT, I was afforded an extremely rare opportunity. Out of all of humanity, only a thin sliver are granted the human capital and resources that come with an MIT education. Generations upon generations built and scraped and sacrificed to make this institute, to create this opportunity. What will we do with the hopes of humanity that we have been entrusted with? Will we go backpacking in Europe? Find ourselves on some road trip somewhere? Spend a few months sitting on our parent’s couch watching reruns of Family Guy?

There have been wars between countries, wars on terrorism, wars on drugs, but the real war, the war that humanity has been fighting from day one, is the war against need. It’s the war against want, against hunger, against thirst, against disease, against entropy and disaster and pain. It’s the struggle to carve out our survival in a harsh and unforgiving world.

In this war, we’ve been given one of the finest arsenals at man’s disposal. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone into our education, from kindergarten to this ceremony today. This largesse has been bestowed upon us even as most of our fellow man is stuck in the trenches with little more than rocks. Billions in Africa, Latin America, and Asia have been cast into this world with limited human and physical capital, poor institutions, and little means of escape. The lucky ones have sweatshops, the unlucky simply starve.

This is a time for every American to be down in the trenches with the rest of humanity, fighting for economic growth. For us, with this education, the obligation should be even greater.

We need a new Greatest Generation. It’s time again for that collective sense of purpose, that feeling that we’re fighting and sacrificing for something. Work hard, save, invest. It’s time again to rebuild, to give the fullest measure and provide an endowment for our children and our children’s children.

If you agree with the need for this renewed commitment, but don’t accept my premise that the free market is a signaling device that shows each of us where we can achieve the greatest good, I’ll happily agree to disagree. I’d rather see you as a scientist, a doctor, a banker, or a consultant — but if you want to Teach for America or join the Peace Corps, I’ll respect that your heart is in the right place. However, if you’re stalling your entry into the world out of fear, hiding in a graduate program for the wrong reasons, delaying getting a job because of the apprehension of starting something new and breaking with the old ways, have courage! If MIT has taught me anything, it is that what challenges us and takes us out of our comfort zone makes us stronger. The world needs you, and it is our time.