Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on September 20, 2017

in Economics, Myths and Fallacies

… is from page 190 of Michael Huemer’s brilliant and important 2013 book, The Problem of Political Authority (emphasis added; footnote deleted):

[I]magine that you were to learn that you are going to die tomorrow.  Though it may be impossible to imagine accurately how you would feel, it is a safe guess that you would be quite upset.  Now I will tell you something that you probably do not know: based on recent worldwide mortality statistics, there are about 156,000 human beings who will in fact die tomorrow.  How do you feel now?  You may find this information disturbing.  But if you are like most people, you are far less upset at this news than you would be by the news that you yourself were about to die.  This suggests, again, that your concern for yourself is perhaps thousands of times stronger than your concern for most other people.

DBx: Notice that Huemer writes here at the end “most other people.”  He’s correct to do so because, obviously, the deep concern that each of us has for ourselves is a concern that each of us has for a small handful of other individuals who we love.  Indeed, like the typical parent, I would be more upset were I to learn that my son will die tomorrow than were I to learn that I will die tomorrow – and this latter news would cause me great anguish.  Contrary to some uninformed claims, the assumption used by economists and other competent social scientists that individuals are self-interested is not the assumption that each person cares only about himself.  And much less is this assumption that each person cares only about maximizing the amount of material stuff – or, more ridiculous still, the amount of money – that he or she (or his or her family) possesses.  Yet for those who are intent on rejecting the lessons of sound economics, a cheap avenue to that end is to caricature the so-called “self-interest assumption.”  If this assumption is made to appear sufficiently unrealistic, then people can be persuaded to ignore or to reject any analysis that has that assumption as part of its base.

The assumption of self-interest used by competent social scientists is that each individual has spheres of concern, with that individual and his or her loved ones at the innermost sphere.  But each individual is recognized to have concern – genuine concern – also for many people in spheres not at the center.  For example, I care deeply about each of my three siblings, but the intensity of my care for them is not as great as is the intensity of my care for my son.  Also, I care greatly about my GMU Econ and Mercatus Center colleagues – some more intensely than others because I know some of them better than I know others.  But the intensity of my concern even for the colleagues who are dearest to me is not quite as strong as is my concern for each of my siblings.

Obviously, the number of persons that each of us knows is a tiny fraction of the number of persons currently alive.  You might think it to be ethically horrendous, but the plain fact is that each person cares more about himself, his loved ones, and his neighbors, friends, and colleagues than he cares about any of the billions of strangers whom he neither knows nor knows of in any specific way.

To interpret, as some poor ‘scholars’ do, this observation about self-interest – and its use as an assumption in economic analyses – as evidence that economists project unseemly motives on the agents who populate their analyses is a reflection of spectacular misunderstanding.  Such a display of misunderstanding would cause almost insufferable embarrassment to anyone who displayed it if that person understood his or her error.  But the terrific magnitude of the very ignorance that leads to such a misunderstanding protects the person who displays it from ever grasping just how ridiculous his or her misunderstanding is.


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