To many people, no current slogan appears more self-obvious than “people before profits.” For the Nth time, I saw it repeated, a few days ago, in a bien pensant attack on social media’s freedom: “How Social Media Platforms Put Profits Before People,” Financial Times, July 28, 2022). I suggest that there are few incantations as simplistic or non-sensical as that one.

Profits go to people, not to animals or gods. So the slogan can only mean “some people before some people,” and it has to be explained why the redistribution or discrimination envisioned or intuited is better than some other among an infinity of possible ones. A priori, it makes no more sense to say “people before profits” than “profits before people.”

In contradistinction, classical liberalism and libertarianism aim for no discrimination among individuals. If the idea should be reduced to a slogan, it would be something like “no set of people before any other set of people” or, more properly, “no individual before any other individual,” because a set can contain only one element. The statement must of course be taken as calling for the formal equality (equality of rights, equal liberty) of all individuals because material equality would require constant redistributive meddling and, thus, the violation of the formal equality of those sent to the wrong side of the wicket. This idea can be found in the writings of all modern (classical) liberals, notably perhaps F.A. Hayek and Robert Nozick.

Incidentally, profit is simply the form of remuneration that goes to residual claimants, who get whatever remains in the enterprise after everybody else has been paid, whether the residue or bottom line is positive (profit proper) or negative (loss). It must be distinguished from executive remuneration. Crony capitalism and “state capitalism” work differently.

Stating the liberal solution does not, of course, solve all problems. One problem is that individuals who violate the basic requirements of life in a free society (unprovoked violence is the obvious case) may and should be punished. In a sense, these criminals are discriminated against, but the rule of law would insure that they knew in advance what is forbidden. Not all problems are solved but we are, intellectually, on the way to a liberal society.