Saturday, August 22, 2009


Everyone does what's in his or her own self-interest.

It seems to me that this is almost axiomatic and utterly uncontroversial. 'Duh, of course,' one might respond. But one thing I like to do is take an idea that seems like a given and try to unpack it. Why do we do that? Why do we take it as a given?

A more specific version of the above might be: it's perfectly acceptable to do what's in one's own self-interest as long as it causes no harm to others. I was prompted to consider this question about a year ago when I saw an article in the New York Times about Costco. The article said that Costco paid its workers a fair amount more than the industry average, and some investors were complaining about this. The gist of it was that if Costco paid the industry average, profits would increase, causing stock prices to increase, which would mean more money for the investors. Costco, they said, was not doing all it could to maximize profits, and the obligation of a publicly traded company was to do just that.

In this case, this blog entry's first sentence could be rephrased as: Everyone is perfectly entitled to do what is in his or her self interest even if it harms others, provided no law is broken. I believe that most traders would take this as a given. I would hope that most people in general would frown and consider the investors' attitude disgusting, but I'm not sure how public opinion would fall on this issue. After all, many people would probably do a similar thing in similar circumstances, or they would pay the going wage with no apology. It's just that in our daily lives, we don't get many opportunities to do what benefits us while seeing the harm it does to others. We can see the same thing in today's health-care debate. It's not hard to find Medicare recipients who are opposed to doing anything to change the current health-care system. Why? Because any change *might* change their current benefits, and they'd apparently rather that 45,000,000 people continued to go without health care than take the smallest chance that anything about their current system would change. Intelligent people say this publicly, names attached, apparently unashamed.

Of course, to an extent, acting on self-interest is natural; we wouldn't have risen up through evolution if we weren't programmed to do that. Millennia ago, being self-interested could mean the difference between life and death. Now, especially for those of us in Western societies who are middle-class or higher, we could easily afford to oppose our own self-interest for the common good, and many do. But there is still a culture in which it's perfectly fine to consider your own self-interest as more important than the common good, and politicians pander to those focused on their own self-interest rather than telling them to consider the needs of others.

My current feeling is that the things we got from evolution–aggression, competitiveness, self-centeredness–served us then and don't serve us now, but now that we're beyond the need for them, they're not that easy to get rid of. We might lose them if our civilization lasted thousands of years, as the lack of a survival-of-the-fittest mechanism helped breed not only the aggressive and self-interested, but I do wonder if we can make it that long. It seems to me that changing our culture is a lot like changing our character: something we do deliberately, that we consider important, and that we focus on strongly. If indulging in one's own self-interest when not absolutely necessary became a social evil rather than a cultural norm, petty indulgences in self-interest such as the Costco thing might go the way of racism: disappearing, though slowly. It takes time, and new generations. But first, we have to notice that something is wrong with it.

Costco apparently makes perfectly good profits while paying its workers enough to make a decent middle-class living. What's wrong with that? How did we get to a point in our society where this would be criticized? I wish the investors who complained would take a moment to think about that. I'm not holding my breath, though.

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