Sunday, March 09, 2008

Triumph of Hope Over Meaning

As Adam Smith said, “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. There is no reason that doesn’t apply to the environmental as well.”

From: Eyes Open (’searching for questions amidst too many answers’) 8 March, here and mentions Adam Smith to give undeserved authority to a torn out of context quotation by herbertanzer, :
Saving the earth to save ourselves

That can mean that anybody doing whatever is in their self interests, as they see it (polluters and all), that they promote society’s interest either ‘frequently’ or not at all on those other occasions when it does not promote society’s interests.

In short, it is a hope or an expectation and is not a sure guide to policy. i.e., not very interesting.

[The quote comes from Wealth of Nations, Book IV.ii.9: p 456]


Blogger Herbert said...

I think you miss my meaning a bit. What I am trying to argue is that it is is the interest of all humans to not pollute as much, and generally try to take better care of the planet, as to promote our own survival, which is inherently self- interest.

Economically, polluting might seem in the interest of corporations, etc, but as we've learned from the tragedy of the Commons, in the long term, it never is. So if we were actually pursuing our true environmental self-interest, we would pollute much less.

Sorry if I wasn't clear on that.


3:51 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Thank you for clarifying that point.

However, with respect I do not think your clarification helps much. If people act in society's best interests (which happens to coincide with their own interst) then they are working in society's best interest appears tautilogical.

It is because this would be true, it is not very 'interesting'.

The errors lies in re-stating Adam Smith's principle of behaviour that people act in their own best interest snd from that concluding that they act in society's best interest, which is not the same statment that he made. It is also said by people making this error that it is 'miraculous' and from which they generalise the metapho of the invisible hand into a 'theorem', etc.

People acting in their own best interest frequently do not act in society's best interest, unless society is 'meant' to have evil or selfish, i.e., a society is 'good' because it exists. Indeed, Adam Smith gave over 50 examples in Books I and II of Wealth Of Nations of people acting in the their self interest which were clearly anything but beneficial for others living in society.

Thus, the polluters (and monopolists, protectionists, makers of shoddy and dangerous products, and such like) are in their self interest as they see it ('the individual is the best judge of their self interest') which is not the best interest of society, of which the tragedy of the commons, which you corectly raise, is a prime example.

It was that notion that I was criticising in my comments on your post. If you had presented it the way you have clarified it, I may not have had much to say, except Adam Smith did not express it that way.

7:41 am  

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