May 8, 2010

The miracle of the success of the free market is that it uses our selfish motives to impel us to serve each other efficiently, providing the maximum satisfaction of each person of his own wants according to his own priorities. Would unselfish motives, altruism, serve us any better? I can’t imagine what life would be like if we were all motivated by altruism alone.
Even within the close confines of a family, we find it difficult, even impossible, to know the wants and priorities of others. A bit of obvious evidence of this is the great number of people thronging in the shops after Christmas, to exchange their Christmas gifts for other things. Most people are a bit reluctant to do this; it seems like an insult to somebody who has made a real effort to please us. But even when I tell someone what I’d like for Christmas, I’m often disappointed with the result. Their choice is not what I would have chosen for myself. So I generally give gifts of money, and let the recipient make his own choice. (I’m lazy.)
Perhaps the whole question is irrelevant. People have to be selfish to survive, and although altruism may influence their choices, it is their selfishness which impels them to fill their own wants by serving others to the greatest satisfaction of the others. I think many supposedly altruistic political actions like the minimum wage, the welfare state, and foreign aid, are really selfish actions disguised as altruism. At any rate they often have disastrous results.


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