Monday, November 26, 2007

Self-interest

Via Casting the Net, I find this little essay entitled Why you don't need to be selfish to believe in capitalism, which makes an excellent point.
One thing that [Naomi] Klein does not seem to get is that there is a distinction between self-interest and selfishness. It is quite possible to do something that makes you better off but which does no one else any harm (and in fact may be benefiting them). To my way of thinking, this is not selfishness because that requires you to be causing harm to others. This is no semantic difference, it is key to how operates in practice. While self-interest is rewarded, there are laws to prevent selfish behaviour such as lying, stealing, bribery, breaking contracts and using violence. For the market to work there must be legally enforceable limits to the harm people can do to each others.

Quite so; Mark then goes on to articulate a concept that your humble Devil has advanced many times.
Smith might wish us to be entirely virtuous but he knows we’re not. He understood that to try to build a socialist utopia on such shaky foundations was futile and we would be better off trying to turn mans vices into virtues through the market.

Any system that relies on people being altruistic for its survival will never work because humans are self-interested at a genetic level; we are programmed in the self-interest of our genes and their interest is in propagation in the most favourable possible circumstances (in order to ensure maximum probability of survival).

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

A statist might retort that you're entirely correct and that is why you must be compelled to contributed for the greater good.

If you won't give willingly, they might say, you must be forced to give so that society can be fairer and everyone can have hot and cold running Wiis.

Budgie said...

With the statists deciding what is the greater good, no doubt.

A.F. said...

Yet humans are group animals, too. There is the hitch.

Research suggests that altruism might be just as much in the genes (greater chance of survival within group than alone) as self-interest is.

Devil's Kitchen said...

a.f.,

Altruism is an unselfish concern for the welfare of others.

If there is a "greater chance of survival within group than alone", then that is still self-interest, not altrusim.

DK

Budgie said...

a.f. said: "Yet humans are group animals, too. There is the hitch. "

No, they are not. Most humans need society, but they also need time to themselves in privacy. So humans are not solely "group animals", we have complex and varied needs.

Don't ask "for whom the bell tolls" - it doesn't toll for me, that's obvious; and you can't get a sensible answer out of a collectivist.

Roger Thornhill said...

Yes DK,

The real issue with the Welfare State is that it disconnects the giver from the receiver. BTW, the State does not "give", it "takes" then "distributes".

Anonymous said...

"Any system that relies on people being altruistic for its survival will never work"
- yes but the converse is also true - any system that relies on people pursuing only their own self interest for it's continued survival will never work.

So now that socialism and capitalism have both been burnt by the same locig, presumably you're now going to advocate trades guilds and syndicates as the way forward?

Anonymous said...

The free market works because it makes people who act in their own self-interest, work for the greater good. Thats why the welfare state doesn't work, it makes people who act in their own self-interest, act in way which harms others. Of course some people carry out altruistic deeds (in freer societies there is much more philanthropy), but most actions are carried out due to self-interest.

If statists believe people act selfishly why do they expect people to act any differently in a welfare state? Where are they going to find these selfless people to create and distribute wealth.

Devil's Kitchen said...

Anon,

""Any system that relies on people being altruistic for its survival will never work"
- yes but the converse is also true - any system that relies on people pursuing only their own self interest for it's continued survival will never work."


Absolute rubbish: that isn't even clever enough to be a syllogism.

"Of course some people carry out altruistic deeds (in freer societies there is much more philanthropy), but most actions are carried out due to self-interest."

Even the vast majority of "altruistic" acts are done through some sense of self-interest. This is why philanthropists like to have their buildings or university chairs or charities named after them: it gives them cachet, status.

There are those -- Chris Dillow, for instance -- who will argue that it is status that is important; even money, for instance, is simply a way of indicating status.

On a genetic level, higher status generally results in a better choice of mate, etc.

DK

Anonymous said...

Greater resources also used to increase the number of children who survive long enough to give you grandchildren. I think Smith actually noted that in Wealth of Nations and I understand that recent historical research (Greg Clark, Farewell to Alms) has also shown this to have been the case.