All Action is Self-Interested Action

Most self-proclaimed communists refer to the economic system of the United States as capitalism. Most self-proclaimed capitalists point out that the economic system of the United States is actually cronyism. Meanwhile, most self-proclaimed capitalists refer to the economic system of China as communist and most self-proclaimed communists claim that what is implemented in China isn’t real communism.

This is how most arguments about ideological systems go. The critic points to a supposed implementation as proof that the system is trash and the advocate rebuts by claiming that the supposed implementation is a corrupted form of the system, not an actual implementation. If you then prod the advocate about the source of the corruption, they will almost always claim that the source is greedy individuals acting in their self-interest rather than the interests of all.

Is that true? Is the flaw in every ideological system individuals acting in their self-interest instead of the interests of all? Could humanity enjoy a utopian existence under communism if individuals would stop being greedy? Would capitalism not transition into cronyism if individuals worried about what is best for others instead of what is best for themselves? No. It’s not true because all individuals act in their self-interest. It is impossible to do otherwise.

My argument is seldom put forth because many, if not most, people make the mistake of believing self-interest is synonymous with acquisition of power and/or material wealth. But that’s a gross misunderstanding of self-interest. As Ludwig von Mises points out:

Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness1. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be perfectly [p. 14] happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care.

But to make a man act, uneasiness and the image of a more satisfactory state alone are not sufficient. A third condition is required: the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness. In the absence of this condition no action is feasible. Man must yield to the inevitable. He must submit to destiny.

When an individual acts, they seek to remove or alleviate a felt uneasiness. Unease is unique to the individual. What makes one individual uneasy may make another content. Consider a hypothetical love triangle where one individual, who I will call Julius, desires the murder of another, who I will call Gnaeus, because he won the affection of a mutual love interest, who I will call Scribonia. Gnaeus would be made content by the murder of Julius, but Scribonia would be made uneasy by the murder (Julius would probably be uneasy between the time the act or murder began and his death).

People often assume an act isn’t self-interested when they don’t know the source of unease that preceded the action. For example, one might mistake the act of an fire fighter running into a burning building to rescue somebody as an act against the fire fighter’s self-interest because it a cursory examination makes it seem that the fire fighter is causing themselves unease for the sake of another. But the sight or thought of another person suffering can (and probably for most people does) cause unease. The fire fighter may have gone into the burning building because they sought to remove or alleviate their unease of the thought of another individual burning to death. Or they may have instead gone into the burning building because they knew failing to do so would result in their termination from the job and the thought of losing their job caused them unease. Either way the act was in the fire fighter’s self-interest.

I’m sure one clever reader is saying to themselves, “Chris, you said acting against my self-interest is impossible, but I’m going to prove you wrong by stabbing myself in the gut!” Following through with the action would not prove me wrong because the action would be taken to remove or alleviate the unease caused by the thought of me being correct.

Thus the flaw in an ideological system cannot be a failure of individuals to act against their own self-interest. An argument could certainly be made that the primary flaw in an ideological system is individuals whose causes of unease aren’t proper for the system. That, however, is a different argument entirely.

One thought on “All Action is Self-Interested Action”

  1. Very true, and this can’t be stated too often, especially now, when the most noisy groups are screaming that everyone MUST be altruistic (which somehow translates into giving the screamers, and/or their friends, money or a magic boost up any ladder).

    We are selfish and that’s nothing to apologize for. Apologies and/or legal action are called for when our selfishness leads us to immoral acts such as theft, fraud, or application of force.

Comments are closed.