I spend a great deal of my time writing posts talking about the benefits of capitalism. My primary goals in doing so are to explain why there is no need for a coercive state and to couter all the socialists out there that claim capitalism is some kind of evil blight upon the Earth. Capitalism is a workable solution because it relies on the self-interest of individuals whereas socialism relies on the altruism of individuals. Unfortunately for the socialists altruism isn’t a common human trait, even apparently altruistic acts are usually ones of self-interest.
The Mises Institute website has a good article titled Another Case of the Anticapitalistic Mentality It’s a criticism of Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. In it Sandel makes several common socialist claims against the free market, basically claiming the introduction of money into a situation somehow corrupts it. An excerpt from the book that was discussed in the article deals with blood donations:
The answer [to Arrow’s objection] is that commercializing blood changes the meaning of donating it. For consider: in a world where blood is routinely bought and sold, is donating a pint of blood at your local Red Cross still an act of generosity? Or is it an unfair labor practice that deprives needy persons of gainful employment selling their blood? (p. 126)
This is a common criticism of the free market by those who oppose the idea of capitalism. Somehow receiving compensation for donations changes the meaning and that change of meaning is undesirable. What these people fail to realize is that gifting blood is no more altruistic than selling it. I know that’s a pretty bold claim but bear with me.
Throughout most of your life you’ve been taught that it’s better to give than receive, that sharing is caring, and that the highest honor one can attain is sacrificing self for another. It’s beat into us that giving is the ultimate act of good. Therefore, societally speaking, we can achieve the most recognition and congratulations by giving something to another. What do people generally want in life? Acceptance and recognition by their fellow man.
Of course everybody believes they are above that. They want no recognition from society, they merely want to help somebody in need because that person is in need. We still return to the fact that acts performed to help another without any expectation of recognition are acts performed in self-interest. Humans act to alleviate discomfort. Everything we do ultimate derives from discomfort. If we were entirely comfortable, if all our needs were met and we were entirely content, we would not act. To alleviate the discomfort of hunger we eat, of bordom we read or socialize, of sickness we take medication, etc. Empathy, being able to share the feeling of others, causes discomfort. When you see somebody suffering and you are able to emphasize the feelings you experience are discomforting so you move to alleviate the sufferer’s discomfort to alleviate your own. Seeing a beggar on the street can stir different emotions in people. Some will think about the hungry state of the beggar and through their empathy they will be discomforted and desire to help that person. Others will experience guilt, one of the most discomforting feelings humans can experience, for having more than the beggar and move to alleviate their discomfort by giving money to the beggar. We seek to relieve our own discomfort by relieving another’s.
Whether it is to gain societal recognition or to alleviate discomfort caused by empathy, acts of altruism are performed in self-interest. Socialists will often claim that self-interest is evil and that relying on self-interest is what causes all problems for humanity. Self-interest isn’t good or evil, it’s merely the nature of all living creatures. Working entirely in self-interest at the cost of others isn’t good for society but humans have developed empathy that balances the scale of self-interest vs. society. There are those who lack empathy and do things that most of us find deplorable but the majority of us have some ability to empathize (and society ostracization of those without is often enough to prevent them from harming others). I don’t think society would work if a vast majority of people were without empathy. Hell, societies themselves are built upon self-interest. Humans are generally social creatures and desire to be around other humans and we also wish to take advantage of dividing labor.
The bottom line is humans act based on self-interest. Whether that self-interest comes from compensation, social recognition, or to alleviate our own discomfort is irrelevant. I would argue that there is no altruism, at least not the type socialists generally advocate. The idea that acts performed out of self-interest instead of altruism are somehow dirty or evil is absurd because that would mean all acts are dirty or evil. We need to get away from the idea that self-interest is undesirable.
An obvious criticism by those who oppose acts of self-interest is that advocating people act in self-interest will justify acts of self-interest at the expense of others. Fortunately acting in self-interest at the expense of others isn’t a common desire for humans so we needn’t worry heavily about such issues. Think about the vast amount justifications most people have to make in order to overcome their internal feelings against harming others in order to harm others. People have to convince themselves that acts harmful to others are for some kind of “greater good” or that the person they’re harming is bad in some way. When somebody smashes the window of a bank they justify the action to themselves by claiming the bank owners are evil. When somebody murders another they often justify the act by claiming their victim was evil. When politicians rob from people they claim it’s for the greater good. We spend great deals of time twisting our beliefs so that we can justify acts that are harmful to others because human nature is to do the opposite, we desire to help each other because seeing suffering in others causes discomfort to ourselves.
Still we’ve developed safeties against those who would harm others. Self-defense comes in physical and societal forms. If somebody attacks you you flee or fight back. If somebody steals from you you either take your property back or seek compensation through the legal system. We’ve attempted to make acting in self-interest at the expense of others costly so that it’s no longer in one’s self-interest to act at the expense of another.
Capitalism works because it relies on our inherit self-interest while socialism has failed time and time again because it relies on altruism. Implementing a system that requires us to oppose our very nature is destined to fail. Trying to regulate the free market by restricting what can and can’t be sold can never work. If there is a market it will be fulfilled, if not by the regulated market then it will be by the black market.