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Freeman Essay #50: “The Selfishness of the Unselfish”

Some of the most self-centered and selfish people are those who sincerely believe themselves to be especially applause-worthy altruistic promoters of the greater good.  I explain in this June 2000 Freeman column – which is below the fold.

Several years ago, I encountered a woman at a cocktail party in Atlanta who was active in that city’s historical-preservation movement. To make conversation, I asked why she thought that stricter historical-preservation regulations were required.

“Because greedy developers tear down too many old and beautiful homes or renovate them in ways that destroy their historical integrity” she replied.

“Why do you call these developers ‘greedy’?” I asked.

“Because they care only about money. They don’t care about beauty or history,” she answered.

“But because they build houses to make money they must take account of the tastes and demands of their customers, who either cannot afford or do not want to live in historically accurate old houses. What’s wrong with that?”

“Everything!” she shot back. “Most home buyers today have dreadfully bad taste.”

“I’m curious: what kind of home do you live in?” I inquired.

“An 1893 Victorian, perfectly restored,” she answered proudly.

I regret that my desire to avoid confrontation caused me then to mumble a limp reply and fade off to fetch another glass of wine.

But the exchange is instructive. Amazingly, this woman believed herself to represent the forces of good and altruism in a battle against the forces of evil and greed. And I bet that if the local newspaper had written a story about her efforts on behalf of historical preservation, she would have been portrayed as a modern Joan of Arc. But it is she who is the truly greedy one. Not only was she blithely willing to impose her own tastes on others, but the policies she championed—by reducing the supply of housing in Atlanta—conveniently increased the value of her own home. She was eager to use government to force countless other people—in exchange for nothing from her—to subsidize her aesthetic sensibilities and to enhance her balance sheet.

That’s genuine greed.

Sadly, the attitude of my acquaintance in Atlanta is merely one small case in a widespread epidemic that might be called “the selfishness of the unselfish.” The selfishness of the unselfish is found whenever the self-proclaimed enemies of greed bemoan, with one breath, the base motivations that allegedly drive capitalism, and then, with their next breath, propose policies that are monuments to vulgar selfishness.

The most easily spotted strain of this disease is that which compels its host to level charges of greed against others merely as a means of clearing the way for government policies that serve the host’s own narrow self-interest. This is the strain that infected my acquaintance in Atlanta: she liked old homes and hypocritically called “greedy” anyone who built any home that she disliked.

This is the strain that also triggers protectionism, minimum-wage legislation, and any number of other policies that materially benefit some people at the expense of others. Perhaps surprisingly, much of modern-day environmental policy is of this sort.

Consider that many of today’s environmentalists are among the most vocal opponents of “capitalist greed.” But environmental policies too often provide benefits to environmentalists (for example, protecting land from development so that it is available for hiking) at the expense of consumers who would benefit from the greater supply of goods and services that would be available were it not for these output-reducing policies.

My point here is not that preserving some land from development is undesirable. Rather, it is that those who advocate such environmental policies in the name of opposing “capitalist greed” are themselves motivated by their own greed. And it is an especially galling greed. Not only are those who are motivated by it blind to their own avarice, but they—unlike entrepreneurs—satisfy their selfishness through force. They use government to take from others and give to them. Entrepreneurs, in contrast, satisfy their self-interest by giving things of value in exchange for what they receive from consumers.

The other strain of the “selfishness of the unselfish” disease is a bit (but just a bit) harder to spot. This strain does not lead its hosts to advocate harmful policies that bestow material benefits on them. Instead, it simply encourages its hosts selfishly to emote rather than to think rationally about various policies.

It is much more difficult to study an issue and to think it through thoroughly than to react emotionally. Reacting emotionally is a cheap way to strut your sensibilities in front of others as well as to avoid the often arduous intellectual challenge of learning the relevant details, studying the alternative theories, and weighing all the pros and cons before reaching a conclusion. Doing this hard work requires diligence. To express an opinion without undertaking this effort is supremely selfish, for to do so is to steal the gratification that comes with “taking a stand” without paying the price of assuring that the stand taken is sound.

Consider, for example, the well-meaning nineteenth-century reformers who sought to improve immigrant housing in America by mandating higher housing quality.

The kinds of reforms being promoted in the nineteenth century did not expand the slum-dwellers’ options but reduced them. Since better housing mandated by law cost more money, immigrant slum-dwellers now had to devote a higher percentage of their incomes toward purchasing more expensive housing with features that would be more pleasing to third-party observers, rather than make the trade-offs that they themselves would have preferred with their own money.*

These reformers selfishly indulged in campaigns that made them feel good about themselves, without bothering to explore the full consequences of the schemes they foisted on innocent third parties. While the reformers got good press and a warm sense of self-satisfaction, the welfare of immigrants deteriorated as a consequence of these reformers’ selfish indulgence of their own thoughtless notions of reality.

The same is true of today’s “reformers” who clamor for banning imports of goods made in factories that employ children. These reformers selfishly enjoy the rush of satisfaction that comes from moral posturing without once stopping to trace the consequences of the policies they advocate.

Pay attention to the protestations of those who demand greater government involvement in the economy—particularly those who bemoan the greed that allegedly characterizes capitalism. You’ll find that almost always the most outspoken opponents of greed are its greatest patrons.

* Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice (New York: Free Press, 1999), p. 128.


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