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On Capitalism and Self Interest

“Help somebody when they are in trouble and they will remember you when they are in trouble again.”

“You’ve gotta look out for number one.”

“Greed is good.”

I’m a big proponent of free speech. However, it frequently occurred to me while listening to Rush Limbaugh that certain types of speech and certain opinions can be repeated so often and so vigorously that they eventually can turn from speech into an ideology with real-world implications. That can be a good thing. My fear while listening to Rush Limbaugh, though, was that so much fear and anger on the radio would eventually permeate into fear and anger so deep within some listeners that it becomes actionable, and that those actions might turn violent. The results, however, are not always so obvious.

One unfortunate example of speech turning into an ideology and changing behavior is our love for capitalism. I think that we’ve all come to a general consensus that markets are a good thing. We love markets. Yes, there are still some socialists in the world (and some still being elected in Europe). But here in America, even those demonized for their socialist ways (read: Obama) are still hiring Wall St bankers to important posts in his administration. So we’re basically all on board: markets are good. The dispute comes only into how often, how much and in what ways should markets be improved upon or intervened into.

However, the rhetoric that accompanies capitalism or that is used to justify some of its darker moments has had a side effect; it has led to quotes such as the ones above. The rhetoric of the free market and capitalism has led to selfishness; to cynicism. Of course, selfishness is not new, nor is it unique to capitalist countries. Capitalism did not give birth to these traits. However, when the fictional Gordon Gekko uttered “Greed is Good” in the 1987 film, “Wall Street,” he burned into popular culture the notion that what was once frowned upon in society could be virtuous. He took the idea that selfishness and self-reliance are par for the course–if not necessary survival skills–out of the boardroom and into the main stream. He, along with a steady stream of supporting associated rhetoric, made greed good.

It all starts with the “invisible hand;” Adam Smith’s famous metaphor that by acting within their own self interest, people would guide the markets to direct resources appropriately and efficiently. It’s a flawed model, as is any, but the premise is generally sound, and I won’t take issue with it here (though I could envision another post addressing this more fully). I obviously didn’t know Adam Smith and can only presume here, but I’d be willing to bet that when Adam Smith crafted those words, he had an entirely different view of self interest than we do today.

Self interest is not selfishness. Self interest is not greed. Most importantly, self interest can still exist within the knowledge that we are all a part of something bigger–of a society; a community. In fact, one could say that selfishness is self interest in a vacuum, and that greed is self interest in excess and at the expense of others. But we do not live in a vacuum. I am not the only person affected by my choices. My self interest does not have to be at the expense of someone else’s. Our self interests might actually be better-served cooperatively or through short-term sacrifice by one party or another.

A capitalist society functions based on the whims of those within it. When things go awry, many might point to capitalism or to the system, but I also point to the whims–and the rhetoric that changed them. Years of reinforcement have us convinced that taking the most that we can, relying only on ourselves, and sacrificing only in the rarest of circumstances somehow actually enhances the quality and efficiency of our marketplace. The sooner that we, as a capitalist society, understand that our own self interests are better served within the reality that we exist not simply as individuals, but as individuals within a society, the better will be the outcome of the invisible hand.

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  1. July 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm

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