What is selfishness?
By Arnold Kling
when someone selfishly jogs to improve his or her health, we applaud. When that same someone selfishly seeks financial profit by offering goods or services for sale to consumers, many of us are wary. (And even most of the other of us who aren’t wary don’t positively praise this variety of self-interested behavior. We merely tolerate it as necessary.)
Selfish behavior that is exclusively self-regarding is praised; selfish behavior that requires the selfish actor to consider and satisfy and please strangers is suspect.
I think that we have a deep-seated inclination to view market transactions as zero-sum rather than positive-sum games. So when we buy, we think that the seller “wins” and we “lose,” even though we voluntarily made the purchase.
My explanation for this consists of amateur evolutionary psychology. In the hunter-gatherer period, there was no market pricing. The stronger prehistoric human took advantage of his weaker counterpart in any exchange. Our prehistoric self sees corporate sellers as an analogue of a giant brute with a big club.
Thus, we have the Erin Brockovich narrative. The corporation is cold and evil. The anti-corporate crusader is virtuous.
To see the larger context of an economic system and its positive-sum consequences requires a major leap, a shift of consciousness if you will. The objective of economics courses should not be simply to get students to shift supply and demand curves correctly. It should enable them to make that consciousness shift. In that sense, not even all professional economists have Learned Economics (see the chapter on Type C vs. type M arguments).
it seems that we are biologically wired to imaging goods as fixed sum entities that just appear (as if they grow on trees, or graze in large herds perhaps) where one person having them means another person goes without.
For Discussion. If our prehistoric self views a corporation from which we are buying a product as a brute with a club, what should our analogy be instead?