Self-Interest, Part 2

By Boudreaux, Donald J. | Ideas on Liberty, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Self-Interest, Part 2


Boudreaux, Donald J., Ideas on Liberty


When he tried to do anything for the good of everybody, for humanity, for Russia, for the whole village, he had noticed that the thoughts of it were agreeable, but the activity itself was always unsatisfactory; there was no full assurance that the work was really necessary. . . . But now since his marriage, when he began to confine himself more and more to living for himself, though he no longer felt any joy at the thought of his activity, he felt confident that his work was necessary, that it progressed far better than formerly, and that it was always growing more and more.

-LEO TOLSTOY, Anna Karenina

Self-interest is vital to our prosperity. As Adam Smith famously explained, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens."

So very true. Private property and free markets harness self-interest, enlighten it, and inspire each of us to better our own condition by bettering the conditions of others.

This justification of self-interest is consistent with the belief that, while self-interest might be channeled into productive avenues, the world would be an even better place, and the economy would be even more productive, if people weren't self-interested.

I dissent from this oft-expressed belief. It isn't so much that a flourishing, highly productive economy such as ours is possible despite self-interest; rather, such an economy requires self-interest. This is so because there are two aspects of reality that every economy must deal with, but that altruism does nothing to alter: scarcity and ignorance.

Because resources are scarce, prosperity requires that what relatively few resources we have be used as wisely as possible. In a world without scarcity, for example, it would be sensible for me to keep my fireplace lit by tossing dining-room chairs into the blaze. Why shouldn't I do so? Chairs are superabundant and, hence, valueless.

Of course, in reality, while the wood that my dining-room chairs are made of would produce an excellent fire to warm my living room on a cold winter's evening, I clearly would reduce my family's prosperity if I used our furniture so foolishly.

But how do I know this fact? I know it because chairs-like all goods, services, and resources-have market prices. These market prices tell me the relative values of goods, services, and resources. It's because I must pay a few hundred dollars for a dining-room chair, compared to a few cents for a chopped log, that I burn chopped logs rather than furniture in my fireplace. Self-interest directs me to use relatively abundant materials (logs) in place of scarcer materials (furniture) as fuel for my household fires. As a result, my family is wealthier than we would be if I didn't know to make fires from logs rather than furniture.

Likewise for the economy writ large. Motor fuel is today made from petroleum.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Self-Interest, Part 2
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.