On Self-Interestedness

by Don Boudreaux on December 16, 2004

in Myths and Fallacies

Ever notice how enthusiastically our popular and political culture endorses and even celebrates self-interestedness?

Each of us is encouraged to exercise, to lose weight, to quit smoking, to eat healthier foods, to go back to school to complete that college degree.  We’re advised to do all sorts of things that are good principally for us, individually.  This advice proudly encourages self-interested motivation.  Here are just two examples.  The first is from Teen Scene magazine:

Stress does cause weight gain. If you’re stressed, you’re likely to eat "comfort food" and not realize how much you’re eating. Stress may trigger chemicals in your body that cling to fat cells. Stress also evaluates your heart rate and makes you vulnerable to illnesses. If you’re feeling stressed, take a breather. Find at least an hour to do something for yourself.

Or this quotation from exercise guru Bob Bohnam:

Surely you can set aside half an hour three times a week to train, jog or do some sort of exercise. Make training part of your weekly routine, like working, running errands or shopping. You spend a lot of time doing things for your employer, family and friends. You also need to do something for yourself. Make going to the gym your time. It’s for your health.

(I found these quotations by Googling [exercise “do something for yourself”] – which turned up 3,610 hits.)

…..

I do not dispute the wisdom of exercising, eating right, and stopping to smell roses and other fragrant flowers.  Nor do I object to self-interested actions.

But I have long been struck by how certain actions – exercising, eating low-fat diets, quitting smoking – are routinely celebrated, esteemed, even idolized, despite being almost wholly self-interested.  Other self-interested actions, in contrast – such as financial investing, or running a profit-seeking business in a profit-seeking way – are looked upon much more suspiciously.  (For example, in this recent exchange on the merits of private vs. government provision of health-care, one commenter ridiculed as being obviously absurd the notion that health-care provision should be motivated by self-interest — what he calls “greed.”)

The fact, then, is that our culture does not simple-mindedly elevate other-regarding actions over self-interested actions.  Many obviously self-interested actions are admired and encouraged.  Only some self-interested actions are slapped with the label “greed” and condemned as ugly and harmful.

Jogging to stay healthy is virtuous; managing your pharmaceutical firm to stay profitable is inconsiderate (and for many people downright scandalous).

Curiously, the set of self-interested actions that are widely praised are those whose positive effects redound almost exclusively to each self-interested actor.  If I exercise and eat right, the resulting health and beauty benefits are mine alone.  My healthier heart, bulgier biceps, and more-slender body do nothing to improve my neighbor’s well-being.  (In fact, my exercise and good diet might harm him, for they improve my chances of getting the pretty girl whom we’ve both been eyeing.)

In contrast, prominent among the self-interested actions that are popularly suspect are those whose fulfillment requires self-interested actors to provide benefits to others.  Of course, the business firm that earns profits in the market yields benefits to its self-interested principals – but it does so only insofar as it yields benefits to others.  And the greater the benefits provided to others, and the greater the number of others provided with these benefits, the greater are the benefits that the self-interested, profit-seeking business principals enjoy.

That is, when someone selfishly jogs to improve his or her health, we applaud.  When that same someone selfishly seeks financial profit by offering goods or services for sale to consumers, many of us are wary.  (And even most of the other of us who aren’t wary don’t positively praise this variety of self-interested behavior.  We merely tolerate it as necessary.)

Selfish behavior that is exclusively self-regarding is praised; selfish behavior that requires the selfish actor to consider and satisfy and please strangers is suspect.

Curious.

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