If there ever were two concepts so hopelessly confused it is selfishness and self-interest. Many say: “Oh you Libertarians, you believe everyone’s so completely selfish; they’d stab their own granny for two dollars.” Let us read again that oft-quoted passage of our favourite free marketeer (emphasis mine):
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
So it is not selfishness Smith speaks of, but something he calls self-interest. What is this “self-interest” and why is it different to selfishness? I propose: self-interest is man’s natural expression of his evolutionary imperative. Selfishness is an unnatural expression of man’s evolutionary imperative.
Think about it: for homo sapiens sapiens to develop as a species, we each have a duty to ourselves and our family to insure the continuity of our genetic material; somewhere along the line someone learned that co-operation and mutual exchange helped everyone and impoverished no-one, so all across the planet parents teach their children the same maxim: theft is bad, murder is bad.
This is self-interest: Looking after yourself, your family, and your tribe. Fastening your own oxygen mask before helping your neighbour with theirs. Getting the women and children into the life-rafts first.
Selfishness is taking the self-love to such an extreme that you impair your own ability to reproduce — stealing from your neighbour so you can be full even though it leaves him hungry. Fastening your oxygen mask, then keeping your neighbour’s as well, just in case.
Self-interest is what makes the collective voluntary exchange we call the “market” work. Self-interested individuals help others happily and willingly: but family first, then friends, then neighbours. Selfish people do not help others (although they may be quite happy to force others to).
So when a Libertarian says “everyone is self-interested,” it’s not a criticism. Self-interest is fastening your own oxygen mask, before helping your neighbour with theirs.
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