Homo Economicus [4]: Enlightened Self-Interest

homo economicus

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest in a free market improves things for everyone. This belief powered Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits,” and finds a philosophical ally in Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”:

“The core of Rand’s philosophy… is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. [The pursuit of self-interest], she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

‘Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.’

“By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.”

What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory, Evonomics (Feb. 17, 2016)

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of American capitalism in its current iteration. This is from a 2017 Atlantic article:

“’I grew up reading Ayn Rand,’ … Paul Ryan has said, ‘and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.’ It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. ‘I think a lot of people,’ Ryan said in 2009, ‘would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.’”

Critics point out that there is no such thing as a free market or objectively rational self-interest, arguing instead that the market is inescapably skewed toward policy-makers’  beliefs and values — i.e., their particular interpretations of what “self-interested” behavior looks like.[1] As a result, economic policy always comes laden with ethical and moral beliefs about “good” vs. “bad” outcomes, which the not-so-free market then dutifully delivers:

“Milton Friedman argued that competition between big businesses suffices to safeguard the public interest, but in practice it is almost always insufficient, especially where there is collusion among the players to safeguard their market dominance – and their political influence.

“Free-market economists have an unwarranted faith in the capacity of price adjustments to produce technological changes in production and patterns of consumer demand. Their theories imply that the price system has infinite capacity to shape sustainable outcomes.

“But if the self-interested market behaviours continue to seek an unchanged goal – more personal incomes with which to purchase more material goods – ultimately they cannot be fulfilled.

 “Ultimately, the short-term self-interested economic arrangements are not sustainable anyway. As the US economist Kenneth Boulding once said: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”.

“Economic inequalities also predictably widen where self-interested market behaviours dominate. Capital makes capital, while those without capital often remain consigned to poverty. Certainly, the very rich have become notably much wealthier during the last three decades while neoliberal ideologies and policies have been dominant. In the absence of strong unions and governments committed to some degree of egalitarian redistribution, the unequalising tendency is inexorable. The result is predictably unhappier societies that experience a higher incidence of social problems, as empirical research complied by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett clearly demonstrates.

“Something has to give. An economic system that rewards amoral self-interest creates economic instability, fractures economic insecurity, fosters concentrations of economic power, exacerbates economic inequality and violates ecological sustainability. So much for the self-regulating market economy!

“There is currently much talk of ‘social responsibility’ in business and of ‘triple bottom line accounting’ that emphasises the use of social and environmental criteria, as well as a financial criterion, in assessing business performance… Indeed, businesses developing reputations for responsible behaviours may reap benefits in the form of worker and customer loyalty. But unless and until ethical behaviours become integral to how markets function – by directly affecting ‘shareholder value’, for example – it is hard to see the overall effect as much more than window dressing for ‘business as usual’.”

Oh, The Morality: Why Ethics Matters In Economics, The Conversation (in partnership with the University of Sydney) (March 22, 2012)

More on ethics and economics next time.

[1] For more on whether the market is truly “free,” see this article and this one. Or if you prefer, here’s a short video and here’s a TEDX talk.

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes draws insight and perspective from his prior career in law, business, and consulting, from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, and technology, and from personal life experience.

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