Thursday, April 13, 2006

What Happens When Everyone Is Selfish?

Bryan Caplan responds to a hypothetical:
Would a society made up of totally selfish human beings be worse than the society we have today? Could it even function? In last week's Inaugural James M. Buchanan Lecture, Deirdre McCloskey seemed to think that the obvious answers were No on both counts. A society that practiced no virtue other than Prudence would be a disaster.
He disagrees, but I think he goes too far on some counts and not far enough on others. My fundamental belief about human behavior is that man is inherently greedy and selfish. I have a difficult time imagining this hypothetical world much differently from the one that we actually live in.

You can ascribe almost all human behavior to a selfish trait. People rarely give to charities that they could not benefit from; for example how many men give freely to the American Breast Cancer Assoc? Poverty related charities offer two selfish benefits. First, we know that there is a chance that we, someday, could need their services, so we invest in that possible future. Secondly, offerings like homeless shelters and soup kitchens keep the homeless and very poor congregated in a single spot - away from the wealth and out of site.

Bryan claims that charity to strangers would disappear, but I'm not so sure. We rarely help strangers if it costs us anything. We point them in the right direction, we recommend a good place to eat and sometimes we help them push their car out of the snow. Are these acts completely selfless? I don't' think so, if we refuse to offer free assistance to strangers they could become belligerent - especially if we assume that they are very selfish. We offer to help the stranger in the snow hoping that someone may help us if we were in the same situation, or perhaps they are blocking traffic and we need to get to work.

However, if we knew that no one would help us in times of random need, we would likely be better prepared for most eventualities. We would buy AAA services to help us when we were stuck, we would research restaurant locations before we traveled, or buy homeless insurance. The absence of stranger assistance would not effect us greatly in this hypothetical world.

Bryan then goes too far when he reasons that with Prudence there would be little or no war. He reasons that no one would be willing to die for a cause ending war and aggression. I find this more than a little difficult to believe. Many, if not most, religions base their principles on the fact that this world is temporary and the afterlife is where bliss begins. What selfish person would not give their life on this world to be guaranteed eternal bliss? Religion, racism and nationalism are inherently selfish traits. We want to prosper at the expense of others. When you have an opportunity to collaborate with others of similar traits (religion, race, ethnicity, nationality) to try to succeed at the expense of others there is no reason that selfishness would prevent that behavior.

The other aspect of war that he fails to take into account is the aggression of tyrants and dictators. When thugs hold the reins of power the powerless often have little choice but to cooperate. If you look at most of the wars in modern times, they are wars of tyrants or against tyrants.

In short, I think that we live in this hypothetical world, or close enough that it makes little difference. If everyone understood that man is driven by greed and selfishness and made policy decisions based on this fact we could avoid the "compassionate" legislation that is intended to help others that typically just makes everyone worse off than they originally were.

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