Selfish interest and self-interest

There is a difference between selfish interests and self-interest. Adam Smith famously pointed out that people are motivated by self-interest, and that you could build the structure of society around that idea. And we did, and called that structure capitalism. It has been wildly successful. Maybe even too successful.

Selfish interest is more like the “greed is good” idea. Adam Smith also has an opinion about that, expressed on page one of his favorite book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. However selfish we might think people are, he tells us, we all have sympathy for others. In other words, you might think people are just out for themselves and don’t care about anyone else, but that is wrong. They aren’t. We are all subject to the feeling of empathy, and that is where moral sentiments come from. It has taken me a long time to really appreciate what this means, but its a brilliant little insight that Smith develops throughout his work.

In the final episode of the show Cheers, the “everyman” character, Norm (he’s just your average guy, get it?) tells the hero, Sam, that love is the most important thing. He waits until everyone else leaves, because he is too embarrassed to say this in the presence of his fellows, but he shares his authentic thoughts with the bartender in confidence, the way you would imagine a barfly might. He tells Sam that he loves his bar stool – his symbolic place in the world. This is what self-interest looks like. A worker loves his or her job because it is their symbolic place in the world, and will devote their self to the accomplishment of that job in a manner that is authentic and fully engaged. You can trust a baker to bake the best bread that he or she can, because as a baker, that is their job. It is their self’s interest that they perform that job to the best of their ability, lest they be deprived of that work. We are a society of laborers – not to have a job is not to exist.

Selfish interest is different. There is a wonderful story I once heard told by economic historian (and dedicated libertarian) Deirdre McCloskey. It is an old story, but it illustrates precisely what selfish interest is all about. Late one evening, Jesus and Moses are traveling along a country road. They are weary, so when they come to a house by the side of the road, they knock on the door and, disguised as beggars, ask the inhabitant for a place to rest. Inside the hut lives a poor man and his wife. They graciously give the two beggars a meal and a place to rest. In the morning, Jesus and Moses reveal themselves to the poor man and his wife, and tell them that they will grant them a wish. The poor man begins to tell them “Well, the neighbor has a goat, and the goat provides him with milk and also very fine hair with which to make soft cloth…” Jesus, who is in a bit of a hurry, jumps in “Ah, I see, so you want a goat then?” The poor man responds “No, no- I want you to take my neighbor’s goat away.” This is selfish interest. The happiness of others is perceived as a disruption of the order of the world, and the poor man simply wants to restore order.

Yesterday, I got the comment “The real issue I have with government employment is the sustainability of massive government employment.” The basic problem with having the government provide goods and services is that it must pay for them out of the existing stock of goods and services already provided by the market system. That is to say, the economy is a zero-sum game, and any one individual’s gain is another individual’s loss, by definition. There must be balance! A very popular idea indeed…

It is interesting to me that, for all the work I put into thinking about employment and the role of government and capitalism and so on, the discussion comes back to “Government spending is a loss to the taxpayer. Therefore, maximizing my own utility requires minimizing government use of resources.” I despair sometimes at these discussions, because I feel like I haven’t said anything at all, like I’m just bashing my head against concrete. Of course, I must remind myself that I’m not writing a blog to convince anyone of anything. I do this for the enjoyment of writing down my thoughts and putting them where others can see them. There isn’t any requirement that those thoughts be taken seriously. I’m just kvetching.

On the other hand, I hear quite a lot of the selfish interest style rhetoric these days, living in this small prairie town. As far as I can tell, it is taken as an article of faith in downstate Illinois that the city of Chicago is a drain on State resources. To put it in brutal terms: Chicago is a dirty sinkhole full of immigrants and criminals, and the good “Christian” white folks living in the rest of the state resent having to support them with their tax dollars.  Chicago Public Schools is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the public employee pension system is about to go the way of the dinosaurs, but what matters to most folks is that their taxes are too high, and the government is wasting their money. Hence, we have an ongoing budget crisis, with a Governor declaring, over and over, that we need to balance the budget and restore business confidence (by crushing the unions).

But it’s moments like this where I am reminded of that Jesus guy again, hanging out on a crucifix, asking the Almighty “Forgive them…for they know not what they do.”

Published by samuelbarbour

Besides writing a blog, I also teach, farm, cook, and play music. I live in the Illinois River Valley with my partner, Molly Breslin, who sometimes posts stuff at

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