Are you too idealistic

Why materialists often serve noble human ideals better than idealists

Entrepreneurs have a notoriously bad reputation, ethics of opinion are celebrated everywhere. However, the comparison is misleading. Steve Jobs has done much more for the green revolution than modern eco-apocalypticists who outdo each other in paternalistic rhetoric.

Those who can assert noble, idealistic motives for their actions often get recognition for that alone. Even people who are critical of Greta Thunberg praise her idealism. In contrast, people with a materialistic attitude are considered superficial. And contemporaries who strive for fame are quickly criticized as pathological narcissists.

The literary critic and philanthropist Marcel Reich-Ranicki saw it very differently: “Decent people work because of fame and money. The indecent want to change the world and redeem people. "

Of course, this is a pointed and exaggerated statement, and counter-examples immediately come to mind: idealists like Jesus Christ or Albert Schweitzer, who do good, and power-hungry and corrupt dictators who have brought much misfortune to humanity.

Nevertheless, Reich-Ranicki hit the right point: the number of idealists who wanted to improve the world and redeem people and bring endless suffering to people is legion. They include mass murderers like Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong as well as fanatical sect leaders or the supporters of IS today. On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of examples of entrepreneurs whose materialistic pursuit of profit has decisively improved people's lives.

Hitler, the idealist

What many no longer know today: Adolf Hitler accused the bourgeoisie above all of materialism and a lack of idealism. When the bourgeoisie presented workers' demands for higher wages as an expression of materialistic thinking, then he replied (in a speech in July 1931): «You are first and foremost. What is your idealism? How often do I hear what kind of sayings at our business meetings, God knows, I know exactly, yours would not be ready for the smallest sacrifice, every little SA man is ready to sacrifice his life for his ideal, you no longer recognize an ideal from above on, dear friend, and be amazed when the other gives the same answer. . . Then you say what you materialist. Yes, my dear, you are reducing idealism from above. "

Hitler wanted to build his party as a fanatical fighting force of idealists. “Anyone who fights for you today,” he said in a speech to SA fighters in 1922, “cannot win great laurels at the moment, much less great goods, and more likely he will end up in prison. Anyone who is a leader for you today must be an idealist, if only because he leads those against whom everything has apparently conspired. But therein lies the immeasurable source of strength. " Hitler received the great approval in the years 1929 to 1932 not with anti-Semitic slogans, but with advocating the social utopia of the "Volksgemeinschaft".

Counterexample: the Aldi brothers

Karl and Theo Albrecht were the richest Germans for a long time. Seldom has anyone called them an idealist. In 1913, her parents had opened a small 35 square meter grocery store. After the brothers returned from captivity, they opened one grocery store after another in Germany.

Their successful concept initially arose out of necessity. After the war they did not have enough money to buy enough goods for the usual rich assortment. So they were satisfied with a small range of goods at first, but planned to expand this later. The two brothers realized that if they had only a small range of goods, they had to offer their customers another benefit in order for them to buy from them.

Unlike other retailers, the Albrecht brothers fully passed on price reductions when purchasing to their customers. “It's all too easy to keep a price running, even if it has fallen in purchasing. That would be an unpleasant revenge, however, because what you have to achieve is that the customer gains the belief that he cannot go shopping anywhere cheaper. Once that has been achieved - and I believe that is the case with us - the customer accepts everything. "

Competitors soon discovered the opportunities offered by the discount principle. Many - in some cases very successful - chains emerged that copied Aldi. Today Dieter Schwartz, founder of Lidl, is the richest German with 41.5 billion euros in private assets. He too got rich with the discount market principle - offering many people good products at low prices.

If you look at the list of the richest people in the world, most of them got rich as entrepreneurs and innovators who improved many people's lives by inventing new products and services. This applies to Microsoft founder Bill Gates as well as to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Steve Jobs, the idealistic entrepreneur

Steve Jobs is arguably an exception among the rich because he consciously acted as a world changer - which he undoubtedly was. He realized that by appealing to higher values ​​and ideals, he could mobilize his employees for top performance and make disciples of consumers. He stylized the fight against his competitor IBM as the fight of the “good” against the dictatorship of the “evil”. He warned: If Apple does not break the market dominance of IBM, the dark ages evoked by George Orwell in the novel "1984" will begin.

Bill Gates, a rival to Jobs but with whom he worked closely for a number of years, observed: “Steve swore his people to the Mac and kept telling them that he was going to change the world. As a result, he made her work to the point of complete exhaustion, which all led to insane tension and extremely complicated relationships. "

The sentence with which Jobs succeeded in winning the then Pepsi board member John Sculley as CEO for Apple in 1983 is legendary: "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want a chance to change the world?" This is more like a guru than a boss - Jobs combined the qualities of both. In this respect, too, he was probably an exception.

The key difference

Most entrepreneurs change the world without proclaiming it in such big words. Perhaps some of them are really just driven by the pursuit of profit, but even with this they create more benefit than many of those idealists who have set out to improve the world and redeem people. So there is more than a grain of truth in the - admittedly - exaggerated bon mot about the age-old Reich-Ranicki.

Many intellectuals in the 20th century admired, glorified or at least played down totalitarian ideologies and rulers. They were enthusiastic about systems that wanted to create a "new person" through re-education, and despised capitalism because it supposedly only served the pursuit of profit. They considered and still consider coercion towards people in the service of a higher cause to be justified, indeed to be actually necessary - and do not trust individuals to voluntarily decide for what they recognize as better.

Some left-wing critics of communism sometimes made a distinction between communist and fascist systems, because one of them (allegedly) stood up for a good cause and was therefore to be judged more favorably. The lesson of the 20th century, however, is that those who wanted to realize paradise on earth with exuberant idealism made life a true hell for millions of people.

A little differentiation is therefore necessary: ​​Idealism does not have to be something bad per se, but it is by no means to be assessed positively per se. What counts is not the noble intentions, but the actions of people - and the effects that result from them. Steve Jobs, whose iPhone has made more than 30 devices superfluous, contributed more to the conservation of resources than the new eco-apocalyptic, who can show nothing more than a good idealistic attitude.

Rainer Zitelmann is an entrepreneur, doctor of history, sociologist and author, among others. from «Hitler: Self-Image of a Revolutionary» (Olzog, 2017).