In Praise of Self-Interest
Why does self-interest get such a bad rap? Isn’t everyone one who has a strong self-interest a greedy, self-centered narcissist (like you know who)? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all altruists? But the struggle of mankind to suppress self-interest and promote altruism has gotten us in as much trouble as self-interest.
Let me explain. As Darwin noted, all organisms aspire to self-preservation and procreation. Self-preservation prolongs the period for procreation and improves the chances that the organism will be able to pass on its DNA to future generations. Animals do not have a whiff of altruism in their bones and have scant inclination to assist other members of their species except their own offspring (which contain their DNA – see above).
Self-interest is an offshoot of the instinct of self-preservation. To have a self-interest you must be aware of your self (which most other organisms are not). Once you are aware of yourself you do things to better yourself. You try to eat the best food, find the best spot in the cave or get the best animal pelt to keep you warm during the frigid nights of the last ice age. If someone else has better food or a better pelt it would be in your best interest to take it from him (or her). Of course it might not be in your best interest if the other person picked up a rock and smacked you in the head for taking their stuff.
Life during the ice age was nasty, brutish and short (to borrow a phrase). To remedy this dire circumstance Thomas Hobbes recommended that a powerful authority (indeed a leviathan) should rule in order to make people cooperate and to suppress predatory self-interest. It was not long after the end of the ice age and the rise of agriculture that human civilization invented kings and religions to suppress and control the self-interest of the people (but not the self-interest of the king or the priests).
In the Nineteenth Century Karl Marx (and others) witnessed the depredations of the Industrial Revolution and felt that the self-interested actions of capitalists led to the exploitation of the workers. He felt that only the state should own capital and that workers should live by the saying “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Of course, most people are not sufficiently altruistic to abide by Marx’s admonition so a communist society requires a dictatorship of the proletariat the suppress the self-interests of such newly liberated laborers until such time as they are so ethically advanced as to become “Communist Man (sorry, girls. Marx was not much of a feminist)”.
Of course Hobbes’ monarchical leviathans were doomed as Parliaments asserted their authority to limit the monarch’s ability to act in his (or her) own self-interest. The rule of law (as conceived by Enlightenment philosophers) meant that the self-interest of no man (or woman) was above the law. The social contract was thought to provide the framework for our dealing with our fellow man (or woman) and a democratic government of, by and for the people was created to assure that individuals in the society acted in accordance to the social contract.
Adam Smith famously stated “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. This is the magic of the free market economic system. Within the framework of the social contract people can act in their own self-interest while benefitting their fellow citizens at the same time.
Of course, as we look back across history from our perch here in the twenty-first century we see that this wonderful free market system has not performed up to its specs. The framework of the social contract has been distorted to work in favor of the self-interest of certain powerful parties and against the self-interest of other (less powerful) parties. This has occurred because our officials elected to represent our interest have themselves self-interests that have been manipulated for the powerful parties we spoke of earlier.
Our altruistic friends of the progressive persuasion are outraged at this turn of events (among other things). Their answer is to suppress self-interest (which they have labeled “greed” and “profits”) by taxing the wealthy who have presumably become so wealthy in order to satisfy their greed (i.e.; self-interest) through the exploitation of others (see Marx, above). Further, they want to control parts of the economy deemed most cruel and exploitive (such as healthcare) through government domination. Don’t worry, salvation of housing and food distribution is coming.
It was Founder John Adams who said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Well, I think we lasted longer than President Adams thought we would but our progressive friends are working hard to make his prediction come true. But the progressives’ bold plans are dependent on the altruism of government bureaucrats and elected officials (whose self-interests permitted the distortion of the social contract in the first place). Unfortunately, the advent of the Communist Man who works for the benefit of others and not for himself (or herself) has not yet come about.
The answer to our dilemma is not to suppress our natural desire to work in our self-interest, but to put self-interest to work as described by Adam Smith. If a greedy person provides me with a good product or service at a competitive price what do I care about his motives? It is only when greed distorts the social contract by providing shoddy goods or charging monopolistic prices that we must become concerned. The enforcement of the framework of the social contract by government is supposed to prevent such actions. If the social contract has been captured by special interests then we must work to restore the contract so that it can function as designed.
Self-interest is not the villain here. Self-interest is a powerful motivating source and civilization needs powerful motivating sources in order to function. Any powerful force can be used for good or ill (think: fire, electricity, atomic power). It is up to us to channel this source of power for the good of our free and democratic society.