Self Interest

Column by Paul Bonneau.

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It took me a long, long time to figure out how important self interest was, in motivating people. It’s essentially all there is. Humans do not appear to have much of a natural in-born tendency toward virtues such as truth or decency.

As a parent, I try to warn my son about this; but he thinks I am being too cynical. I suspect that, even though we kept him out of government schools all his life, he still has been indoctrinated in a lot of the memes out there. For example, he has difficulty believing that “anthropogenic global warming” might not be a problem after all--in other words, believing that such vast segments of the scientific and government communities might be lying merely because it is in their self interest to do so. Understanding the overwhelming drive of self interest is apparently a difficult lesson to learn.

Yet people can be truthful or honorable or decent. What is going on here?

Let’s imagine two kinds of societies. In the first, people are largely virtuous; we can call this a healthy society. The second, an unhealthy society, is largely filled with people who are not virtuous. Yet self-interest is the primary drive in both kinds of societies. How can this happen?

In the healthy society, one obvious mechanism is reputation. People realize that if they get a reputation as a liar, their life will become much more difficult and unpleasant, because decent people will not associate with them and they will be stuck with other liars and people of generally poor morals. If there is no trust, if nobody believes you, certainly your life will be shit. While there is no inherent drive to virtue, and there might be some back-sliding in this respect, self-interest mostly drives people to be virtuous through the mechanism of reputation.

Obviously, the “right” of association is an important key to a healthy society.

There are other possible mechanisms that push people this way. For example, religion might do so. If a person buys the existence of a God who is watching them, and the existence of a Heaven and Hell, and that virtue will get them to Heaven, then they will tend toward virtue. It is not in their self interest to end up in Hell.

Adam Smith’s famous comment recognized self-interest: “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.”

But how do these mechanisms fail in an unhealthy society?

The rulers still are driven by self interest. If they perceive that a population dependent on them is what keeps them in power, they might see that a virtuous population is not a way to get that. Such a population does not need them. So the ruling class project is to manipulate people into dependence through corruption of their morals. For example, one way to do that is to “help” certain members of the population steal from one set to give to another set. This corrupts the morals of the latter, and divides the people.

They might attempt to destroy the mechanism of reputation, by making it illegal or legally risky for members of the population to communicate with each other, with regards to a person seeking a job or housing, for example. If you can’t get the goods on Joe Blow when he is seeking employment with you, without risking a lawsuit, reputation no longer works. If you cannot pick and choose to whom you rent a home, reputation no longer works. If even baking a cake carries risks, reputation no longer works. If you are in fear of using the wrong word to describe a person, reputation no longer works. Wherever government has seen fit to “protect” some subset of the population from allegedly mean people, they have destroyed reputation as a mechanism toward virtue.

The churches might also become corrupted. To a certain extent, the congregation is only as virtuous as the priest or pastor is. If he gets his entertainment by poking altar boys, the outlook is not too good. Churches also tend to knuckle under to the rulers, to protect their tax exempt status and their position in society. That’s how they end up justifying things like war.

If people face no disincentives, no consequences for bad behavior--one of the main projects of the ruling class in an unhealthy society--then they will become bad. Self interest then pushes them away from the things that make society livable. For example, women will crank out babies they cannot take care of, or with no man in the house to help rear them, when the government removes all disincentives for doing so and in fact provides incentives. People will sell crack when the government raises the profits for doing so by outlawing drugs. Another example, government provides “free” schooling to everyone, while forcing everyone to pay taxes to support this schooling whether they use the schools or not; no wonder people keep sending their kids there despite their knowing how awful these schools are.

Our society is becoming unhealthy, and people are now noticing it, because they are starting to see a lot of downsides lately. It’s all over the Internet. There is no voting ourselves out of it, either, although some have foolishly pinned their hopes on Trump.

Get ready for a revolution. We should hope it comes, because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


D. Saul Weiner's picture

This is an intriguing article.

Some of the ways in which our society is undermining virtuous behavior can be rather subtle. For example, Austrian economists have noted that the process of currency inflation alters our time preferences in such a way as to promote short-term thinking rather than the more desirable inclination toward deferred gratification. We also have an intellectual class that promotes a view of the universe and our place in it which may undermine our spiritual development. We also have government interventions into our diet and food system which are undermining our physical health which in turn also impairs our mental/moral development. This connection was noted by Weston Price about 80 years and was subsequently confirmed.

I think that the statement "there is no inherent drive to virtue" may be a bit of an overstatement. I believe that most people tend to feel regret when they are doing something wrong, independently of whether they believe that their conduct will bring about negative repercussions. So I would consider that phenomenon to be an inherent drive to virtue, though clearly it is not strong enough for most of us to act virtuously much of the time.

Paul's picture

'I think that the statement "there is no inherent drive to virtue" may be a bit of an overstatement.'

Yeah, I probably went a bit overboard with that one. In our pre-"civilized" period - millions of years of tribal existence - a lot of what we call virtue probably was selected for, certainly culturally and maybe even genetically, since it enhanced survival of those who practiced it. But as you say, it is probably a fairly weak tendency.

D. Saul Weiner's picture

It is a difficult and important topic to teach kids. I have struggled with it because, on the one hand, I don't want them to develop an unnecessarily dark view of the world around them and, on the other hand, I think that I must do so in order to protect them in certain respects. For example, if they do not understand the nature of our government, then they might just decide to sign up for the armed forces. In my case, that was a low risk for my daughters, but a more direct threat to them is misinformation on nutrition and vaccines, since they might otherwise make some mistakes with horrific consequences.

Samarami's picture

Your article smacks of my belly-button thesis: the world revolves around my belly-button, not yours. My world.

The advantage of adhering to that premise is in the understanding that your world revolves around your belly-button -- whether you admit it or not. Therefore I can know that, if and when you and I disagree on a thing, it's not because you consider me a bad person -- or even a wrong person. It's just that the experiences, strengths and hopes you have experienced in your world have given you a different slant on the thing than those in my world.

Each morning when I step out of my sovereign state and cross the border into the coercive state that surrounds me I encounter potential threats to my serenity. Police patrols, religious, political and altruism evangelists -- all soliciting my vote (or my "voluntary compliance"). The challenge of anarchy is learning to sidestep and circumnavigate those threats. And not getting bent out of shape each time I realize those folks are -- in their own eyes anyhow -- acting in their own self interest.

As to reputation, I like the way Margaret Mitchel (who wrote "Gone With the Wind", then got herself hit by a car and died long before her time) phrased it through her character of Rhett Butler:

    "...Until you've lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is..."

~Margaret Mitchell
Gone With The Wind