In economics, the profit motive is the motivation of firms that operate so as to maximize their profits. Mainstream microeconomic theory posits that the ultimate goal of a business is to make money. Stated differently, the reason for a business's existence is to turn a profit. The profit motive is a key tenet of rational choice theory, or the theory that economic agents tend to pursue what is in their own best interests. In accordance with this doctrine, businesses seek to benefit themselves and/or their shareholders by maximizing profits.
As it extends beyond economics into ideology, the profit motive has been a major matter of contention.
Theoretically, when an economy is fully competitive (i.e. has no market imperfections like externalities, monopolies, information or power imbalances etc), the profit motive ensures that resources are being allocated efficiently. For instance, Austrian economist Henry Hazlitt explains, “If there is no profit in making an article, it is a sign that the labor and capital devoted to its production are misdirected: the value of the resources that must be used up in making the article is greater than the value of the article itself." In other words, profits let companies know whether an item is worth producing. Theoretically in free and competitive markets, if an individual firm maximizes profits, it ensures that resources are not wasted. However, the market itself, should minimize profits as it is the cost to the value chain. Competition is the key tool by which markets overcome the individual firm's profit maximization incentive. The profit motive is a good of value to the economy. It is needed to provide incentive to generate efficiency and innovation. However over-remuneration of the profit motive creates profit inefficiency.
The majority of criticisms against the profit motive center on the idea that profits should not supersede the needs of people. Michael Moore’s film Sicko, for example, attacks the healthcare industry for its alleged emphasis on profits at the expense of patients. Moore explains:
Another common criticism of the profit motive is that it is believed to encourage selfishness and greed. Critics of the profit motive contend that companies disregard morals or public safety in the pursuit of profits.
Free-market economists argue that the profit motive, coupled with competition, actually reduces the final price of an item for consumption, rather than raising it. They argue that businesses profit by selling a good at a lower price and at a greater volume than the competition. Economist Thomas Sowell uses supermarkets as an example to illustrate this point: “It has been estimated that a supermarket makes a clear profit of about a penny on a dollar of sales. If that sounds pretty skimpy, remember that it is collecting that penny on every dollar at several cash registers simultaneously and, in many cases, around the clock.”
Economist Milton Friedman has argued that greed and self-interest are universal human traits. On a 1979 episode of The Phil Donahue Show, Friedman states, “The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.” He continues by explaining that only in capitalist countries, where individuals can pursue their own self-interest, people have been able to escape from “grinding poverty.”
Author and philosopher Ayn Rand defended selfishness on ethical grounds. Her nonfiction work, The Virtue of Selfishness, argues that selfishness is a moral good and not an excuse to act with disregard for others:
In microeconomics courses, profit maximization is frequently given as the goal of the firm. [...] In microeconomics, profit maximization functions largely as a theoretical goal, with economists using it to prove how firms behave rationally to increase profit. Unfortunately, it ignores many real-world complexities.
Recorded during the 2008 Mises University, Jeffrey Tucker interviews leading Austrian Economists on the topic of Henry Hazlitt's classic book Economics in One Lesson.