MONEY TALKS - Selfish motives don't negate positive effects of involvement

"By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it." Adam Smith wrote those words, and "Joe F" reminded me of them online after this column ran last week. I had written about the graduations of the classes of 2007 at various area high schools.
Norwalk Reflector Staff
Jul 25, 2010

 

"By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it."

Adam Smith wrote those words, and "Joe F" reminded me of them online after this column ran last week. I had written about the graduations of the classes of 2007 at various area high schools.

"America will continue its downward spiral if each of us pursues his individual dreams on his own, without interest in or respect for his community," I concluded.

Smith's words, echoed by Joe, forced me to come to grips with what I really meant to say. Many an author, long before I came along, has said something to the effect of: I write to find out what I think.

So I think I need to clarify what I said, even if I wasn't thinking about it so clearly at the time.

I know I did not mean altruism when I said new generations must not pursue their individual dreams without interest in or respect for their community.

For thousands of years society attempted to control its members through appeals to honor and duty. This period was known, in the western world, as the dark ages. Ha ha. The period continued up through the Enlightenment. Smith, a moral philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, was trying to tell the rest of us that self-interest is really much more reliable than duty and honor.

A quick aside: We do our children a great disservice with the modern curriculum. To high schoolers today well, at least to high schoolers 10 years ago when I went to high school the Enlightenment is a French phenomenon.

The French are all very well and good, of course, but the Scottish Enlightenment is really so much more fun and more important. The Anglo-American system is far more a result of their thinking than it is of the French Jefferson's francophilia notwithstanding.

I am not saying the French Enlightenment is not very influential really, it's probably more influential. After all, while the Scots brought us just the English and American systems, the French Enlightenment was undoubtedly reflected in each of France's 17 republics.

In any case, to really understand what I was getting at, I have to consider not just the idea of self-interest. Another word from the Scottish Enlightenment (an Englishman actually invented it) is polite. The word polite is actually a derivative of polish. The idea was that by interacting with his neighbors the rough edges of a man are knocked off and he is civilized.

It's sort of like the rock polishers you had when you were a kid. You dump a bunch of ugly old rocks in, they roll around for a while against each other and they come out shiny and beautiful.

This is what I was getting at when I cautioned against individual dreams. As we interact with our friends and neighbors, we start to get a sense of ourselves as part of a larger community.

It is not altruism. An excellent example is the black church. The civil rights movement would never have happened without the church. The church gave its members a sense of themselves as part of the community.

But the church didn't just magically appear in 1963. It was around for years and years before and for every protest there were dozens of coffee hours and ice cream socials. Everyone's involvement in it was perfectly self-interested. They did it primarily because they enjoyed it.

And when it came time to protest, each person understood that he'd be better off if he joined the fight. The world was changed for the better because people interacted with their community, even though they did so for primarily selfish reasons.

That is a key mechanism of Adam Smith's principle. But it's happening less and less. In any number of ways, social involvement just going over to your friend's house for dinner is half what it was 30 years ago. If the trend continues, in another 30 years, we will never leave our own living rooms, and society will crumble.