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More of Myself on Selflessness

Recently, I wrote that the world would not necessarily be a better place if people became less narrowly, materially self-interested.

Professor Eric Crampton reminds me that a related point is made in an interesting paper by my colleague Tyler Cowen and his co-author Dan Sutter: “The Costs of Cooperation,” Review of Austrian Economics, November 1999.
I have a further thought on the potential dangers of selflessness – namely, standing alone, selflessness is directionless and inadequately constrained. A person acting selflessly can do genuine good for another, but he must somehow know the other person’s wants, as well as know how his selfless intentions are best employed to satisfy these wants.

But how is the selfless person to know such things? In some cases, the object of selfless action – call him or her the “alms-taker” – might tell the selfless actor what he or she (the alms-taker) wants. In many cases this method works to convey accurate information. But if the alms-taker feels himself to have rather free access to others’ selflessness, the alms-taker too likely becomes irresponsible in estimating and ranking his own wants, thus causing the selfless actions to be wasted on the satisfaction of expressed wants that really are best left unsatisfied in favor of other wants (even when evaluated exclusively from the long-run perspective of the alms-taker).

In other cases, though, the object of someone’s selfless actions might not want the munificence, or might fail to reveal his or her wants clearly enough for the selfless actor to know how to behave. I quote again from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

But how little we know what would make paradise for our neighbors! We judge from our own desires, and our neighbors themselves are not always open enough to throw out hints of theirs.

One of the great beauties of the private-property market is that it is much better than philanthropy at obliging those of us who would receive some benefit from another person to reveal to that other person just what our preferences are.