Sunday, November 16, 2008
Selfishness in a Macro Perspective.
Part 1 of a multipart introspection on selfishness.
Selfishness is usually viewed as a negative quality to be overcome. Is it possible that our individual selfishness can make society better? If so, is selfishness overrated as a human vice?
It appears that we are born into this world as selfish individuals and that this human quality is reinforced and cultivated throughout our lives. We learn early to manipulate those around us by crying and then quickly realize that a huge smile, hug or kiss can melt parents, grandparents and even strangers’ hearts so that they do what we want them to do for us. They give us candy, smile at us, says nice things to us, play with us and act silly for us and we reward them with our cuteness or punish them for their negligence with our tears or screams. If we cry they feed us, change our stinky diapers and take care of any aches, pains or bruises. We care about no one but ourselves as little children.
As babies grow into children, is it no wonder that they throw temper tantrums when they don’t get their own way? They have been #1 and have been able to manipulate their parents and others to get their basic wants and needs. Sibling rivalry is a manifestation of that innate selfishness where we do not want competition for our parents attention and resent our little siblings for horning in on the monopoly we thought we had with our parents. Actually, anything that competes for our caretaker’s time like work, siblings or church causes feelings of resentment because it means that they believe in the fallacy that we are not the center of the universe, that there may be something more important than us. Our selfish desires get thwarted when competition arrives and we learn to react in a manipulative manner in order to regain our rightful throne of selfish indulgence. Children learn manipulative behavior which usually appeals to their parents sense of preserving the peace (crying) or vanity (this baby loves me because it is smiling at me). Thus learned manipulative behavior embraces both positive and negative reinforcement as children strive to maintain their “center of the universe” status.
As we grow and develop through childhood and teenage-hood, good parents try to help us unlearn the lessons of selfishness and help us understand that certain behavior is acceptable or unacceptable in society. However, society not only accepts the theory that each of us is selfish by nature and nurture, but society also reinforces our selfishness by building its economic systems around it. Our current free market society is based on the notion of individual selfishness with self imposed moral restraints. Thus our lives are spent in the selfish pursuit of earning money in order to spend it on ourselves.
Excluding a few rare exceptions such as the city of Enoch, during the existence of man on this earth, a free market society has proven to be the only efficient economic system. It is efficient because it is self regulating. It requires the selfishness of each individual in pursuing what is best for them. As each selfish person works individually in their own best interest, society as a whole enjoys the best outcome. It allows for failure when wrong choices are made and those wrong choices are eliminated quickly because the cost of failing is borne by that individual. On the other hand, the free market allows for large personal gains when one makes a right choice. Thus each individual learns quickly what works to make them money so that with this money they can selfishly indulge themselves. The failures are quickly erased from the system and the successes are quickly rewarded which in turn spurs new risk taking to individually gain the desired reward. Consequently, society as a whole benefits because as issues develop new opportunities for personal gain present themselves and selfish people apply their intelligence and efforts to solve the problems so that they can personally reap the reward that an appropriate solution provides. As problems are solved the bright, hard-working are rewarded for their efforts and society is rewarded with a fast resolution to the issue it was faced with.
Socialism and communism are inefficient because they assume that an elite few know better than everyone else what is best for everyone else. History shows that no one person or small collection of persons, know what is best for society nor do they have all the answers to resolve the issues as they arise. Furthermore, the elite few have little desire to solve the problems encountered by others because they already have what they want—power and money. Communism works for the ruling class because it satisfies their selfish desire for power and wealth. The ruling elite in communism are able to retain power and control because everyone else has nothing and no incentive to have anything. Since there is no incentive for workers to work for a ruling class, communism can only survive through terror and fear of a heavy handed government who thinks nothing of executing anyone who opposes it. Therefore, with little incentive to change a system that already provides for their selfish desires, those responsible for making societal decisions in communism have no reason or incentive to make them. Thus, the market under communism responds slowly to change and often does not reflect the needs of the masses but rather the needs of those few making the decisions.
Both communism and socialism have as their fundamental belief a redistribution of wealth that someone creates through their own hard work or outstanding effort. Our own selfishness tells us that it is not fair to take from those most productive members of society and give it to others who are not because it squelches the individual desire to work hard and reinforces the laziness of the one who does not. Why work harder than the next person when we are going to get the same thing anyway? Why should I expend my time and efforts to produce more when the bum next to me is not doing anything and he gets the same thing I do?
Take away our selfish desires to better ourselves and to be better than our peers and all of society drops down to the lowest level—the laziest person in society. This happens because our selfish incentive changes from doing more to get more for ourselves, to doing less than others because we get the same as they do anyway. Thus our incentive is to get the same as everyone else but to do it with less work. Thus a rational person quickly realizes that if society prevents you from getting more than someone else, then the only way you can get ahead is if you put in less work for the same thing. Our selfishness causes us to work harder than others if we will personally benefit from it and to work less if we will not. It is the same thing principle of selfishness either way. Thus socialism and communism has a leveling effect on everyone because it brings everyone down to the lowest level, that of the laziest person, because our selfishness gives us incentive not to work to get something.
That is why communism and socialism do not and will not ever work to improve society and it cannot make society prosper like the free market does. It is an historical fact.
Since society is made better when we each look out for our own best interest, then is selfishness a good thing? Since we seem to be born with selfishness and have an innate aptitude for it, is there anything wrong with it? Has selfishness been given a bad rap?