Friday, March 14, 2014

Selfishness Throughout Deep History

David Livingstone on 15 Feb -posts on The  Boundary Sentinel HERE  
“However, like the idea of charity itself, greed and its excuses are also as old as humanity. Over recent centuries, there has been an attempt to gain popular support for such a perverted view of reality. In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith, reverently hailed as the “father of economics,” put forward the mythology that the selfish pursuit of wealth creates prosperity for all.” 
This is of course a mistaken view of Adam Smith promoted by ‘conservatives’ in North America.   Smith held no such views, though some English (not Scottish!) academics in the late 19th-century taught the 'selfish'  theme.  The ‘selfish’ interpretation was boosted by a young US middle-of-the-road and talented economist, Paul Samuelson. From his justified prestige in developing mathematically-based economics his elementary textbook, Samuelson's ‘Economics; an analytical introduction’ (1948), McGraw-Hill, that achieved sales of about 5 million to 2010.This meant his ‘selfish’ version of ‘self-interest, became embedded in popular consciousness and among teachers and tutors, and the general public.
However, the ‘selfish’ interpretation bears no resemblance to Smith’s teaching on ‘self-interest’. 
Smith argued that mankind depended on the mutual co-operation of thousands (now billions) of others for their daily sustenance and long-term survival.  This is driven by their (and our) ‘self-interest’ and expresses itself through the mediation of each person’s self-interest through ‘persuasion’, ‘conversation’, and the 'mutual exchange’ of ‘good offices’ (bargaining).

Selfishly demanding that someone gets what they want without exchanging with others for some of what they want too, would lead to failures to transact and exchange, and possibly to violence and theft, and ultimately to the breakdown of society - a not unknown consequence throughout our deep history, as the archaeological record shows way back beyond written history and still, regrettably, occurs today in isolated cases.


Blogger airth10 said...

From onboard ship:

I guess the opposite of 'selfishness' is 'altruism'. Altruism is rarely used in its true meaning. It is misused and overused, just like selfishness. Both words are often exaggerated to ensure their mean is understood. That seems to be the way of the world, that ideas have to be exaggerated so people understand their meaning. (People are thick.)

So for me, it's not such a big deal if people misuse Adam Smith's mean of the invisible hand. I don't think its misuse has made the world worse. In fact I think that its exaggeration has made the world better. In a perverse way it has empower people. If people get the wrong idea about the IH and think it literally means that 'you should just be out for yourself', life will eventually bring them around to the understanding that one also has to cooperate to achieve their ends.

To paraphrase, the means of taking 'selfish' literally is a perverse way to an end.

3:11 pm  

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