Citizen Action Monitor

Over centuries, a borrowed concept of “self-interest” evolved to become a credible tenet of modern economics

Of late, this “borrowed credibility”, unbridled in a capitalist system, has become “the nastiest motive of nasty people.”

No 2090 Posted by fw, November 4, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin of the Home page. 

On the value of the pursuit of self-interest, Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, wrote: “It is his own advantage, indeed and not that of the society, which he has in view, … he is in this, … led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” To this day, the metaphorical “invisible hand” is cited in defence of an “unbridled free market”, giving free rein to self-interest, “the nastiest motives of nasty people” all in the guise of benefiting society.

In this synopsis, Section 5, Chapter 7, titled “The evolution of selfishness,” the double entendre ‘evolution’ is pivotal; it refers to Darwin’s theory of evolution and to the survival of the term ‘selfishness’ as a central tenet in the field of economics.

In closing Section 5, Jackson notes the parallels between nascent economic thought and later evolutionary thought:

“Just as the self-interest of economic agents is supposed to lead ‘as if by an invisible hand’ to the most favourable outcome for society, so the self-interest of individuals is supposed to lead through ‘the survival of the fittest’ to the most favourable outcome for species. Economics has continued to ‘borrow’ credibility for the centrality of self-interest from the theory of evolution ever since. But this credibility is critically, perhaps fatally, flawed.”

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

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The evolution of selfishness, a synopsis, from Chapter 7, “Flourishing — Within Limits” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

Jackson wastes no time in rebutting a view of modern economics based on a flawed model of human nature, which proclaims that people are “inherently selfish”, and it is self-interest that propels “society towards the greater good.”

He traces the roots of this questionable first principle to two 18th century sources: a poem, Fable of the Bees, by a London-based Dutch physician, and Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith’s 1776 classic, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

The Fable of the Bees, argued its author, Bernard de Mandeville, is that self-interest drives economic vigor, thus serving the common good.

Adam Smith, the man regarded as the founder of modern economics, influenced by de Mandeville’s fable, wrote this about the value of the pursuit of self-interest in his Wealth of Nations:

“It is his own advantage, indeed and not that of the society, which he has in view, … he is in this, … led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

To this day, the metaphorical “invisible hand” is cited in defence of an “unbridled free market”, giving free rein to self-interest, “the nastiest motives of nasty people” all in the guise of benefiting of society.

Fast forward to the 19th century. Jackson draws attention to the parallels between early economic thought and Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection based on competitive struggle – the fittest survive, the weakest perish:

“Just as the self-interest of economic agents is supposed to lead ‘as if by an invisible hand’ to the most favourable outcome for society, so the self-interest of individuals is supposed to lead through ‘the survival of the fittest’ to the most favourable outcome for species.

Economics has continued to ‘borrow’ credibility for the centrality of self-interest from the theory of evolution ever since.

But this credibility is critically, perhaps fatally, flawed.”

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