Social Economics: Premises, Findings and Policies

By Edward J.O'Boyle | Go to book overview

7

SELF-INTEREST, ECONOMIC EFFICIENCY, AND THE GENERAL WELFARE

Elba K. Brown-Collier1

There is by now a long and fairly imposing line of economists from Adam Smith to the present who have sought to show that a decentralized economy motivated by self-interest and guided by price signals would be compatible with a coherent disposition of economic resources that could be regarded, in some well defined sense, as superior to a large class of possible alternative dispositions.

(Arrow 1971:vi)

The problem of conflict between the self-interested individual and the rest of society has engaged students of economics from its formal beginnings. Adam Smith asserted that the right of the individual to make choices in his own self-interest would lead to the best outcome for society and that a system organized in this manner would be morally acceptable or just. Smith, however, recognized that unbridled self-interest could be detrimental to the general welfare. Accordingly, he pleaded for some form of moral restraint to control self-interest.

Smith's "impartial spectator" provides the control, ensuring that the individual will temper his individual greed in his relationship with others.

There can be no proper motive for hurting our neighbour, there can be no incitement to do evil to another, which mankind will go along with, except just indignation for evil which that other has done to us. To disturb his happiness merely because it stands in the way of our own, to take from him what is of real use to him merely because it may be of equal or of more use to us, or to indulge, in this manner, at the expence of other people, the natural preference which every man has for his own happiness above that of other people, is what no impartial spectator can go along with.

Though every man may, according to the proverb, be the whole world to himself, to the rest of mankind he is a most insignificant part of it. Though his own happiness may be of more importance to

-90-

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