Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beyond I

It was an Introduction to Economics class in graduate school and the professor was busy drawing a graph on the blackboard.  He had just finished saying that self-interest drives all individual actions in the market (i.e. the world) and it was from this understanding of what explains human behavior that we understand the world.

The class was quiet as people took notes, scribbling in notebooks or typing away on lab-tops.  No one found this statement questionable.  I tried to imagine what they were writing down -- "self-interest", "human", "understand", "the world".

It was clear that this solely self-centered idea of humanity, of what causes us to move and act in the world, was the heart of the philosophy of economics and capitalism.  It was the hook that the whole system hung on.  If we had at one point lived in a world dominated by principles of serving others, economics taught us to serve ourselves first (which might end up serving others in the long run).

It is a bleak, cynical view of humanity that doesn't stand up to many of the things I have seen people do in the world around me.  It is not a social philosophy I want to have to live inside (but mostly don't have an option).  I asked the professor how this economic viewpoint would explain acts of charity or good-will; people working at a soup kitchen, volunteering to clean up a park, recycling, buying local, offering their employees health care even though it reduces their own profits, or stopping to help push a stranded car out of the mud.

The professor was clearly ready for this question (he has gone on to become president of the American Enterprise Institute, a leading conservative think-tank).  He related the story of one of London's richest men in the nineteenth century walking down the street surrounded by scabby orphans clamoring for money; the tycoon, a giant of industry and faithful believer that every man must "lift himself up by his own boot-straps", threw the boys some coins from his pocket. 

Why would that person do that?, the professor asked the classroom.  Because, as Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he cares about other people's happiness "though he derives nothing from it accept the pleasure of seeing it".  In other words, even if we do something in the world for other people...we still are really only doing it for ourselves.

I woke up thinking about that class this foggy morning after completing our second "work-ation" weekend.  Over thirty people sacrificed a weekend to come up to our farm and help us put up deer fence, drill mushroom holes in logs, and dig stones out of the earth.  Three neighbors lent us wheelbarrows and tools, volunteered to work, or cooked lunch on Saturday to feed a full table of strangers. 

The real beauty of starting this farm has been that it is a direct assault against this tired, worn-out view of a solely self-motivated, self-interested world of economic people.  We see living examples of the largeness of people in big and small ways every day. 

The local bakery owner that changes her staff routine to save eggs for us that we will put on our vegetable beds for calcium.  The five families living next to us that collect their kitchern scraps in a bucket every week that we will compost.  The worker at the local supermarket that ignores the rules of management and saves vegetable trimmings for us.  None of these people do this for self-gain; yes, they may do it partially because it makes them feel good, but what makes people feel good is being apart of something bigger than themselves.  The relief that comes from connecting with others.

I didn't have a good answer for that economics professor back then.  But we do now. 

People can be bigger than themselves.  The real problem is that there just aren't enough opportunities to do so in a world that has been built around the simplified, cynical operating system rules of the free market and self-gain.  But maybe it is enough to see small reminders of it and to remember that it is so; it is in these small actions that we bridge the gap between ourselves and the larger world around us and it is in these small bridges that we may some day cross over to a larger view of ourselves and our role in the world.

Thank you to all that keep the match-head of these small reminders burning.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. The most amazing thing about those self-interest arguments is that they are able to present themselves in such a way so that it's logically impossible to falsify or find an alternative - because *everything,* even non-self-interested actions, can be reduced to an explanation in terms of self-interest, they can never be wrong. It's really a religious worldview of sorts, based on a deep and abiding faith that brooks no possible challenge or deliberation. It happened in that slow slide from "here's a theory of how markets work," to "here's how real markets really work" to "here's why society, politics, and economy all work like markets" to "we are all One Logic." To breach that self-fulfilling worldview means both doing something different and interpreting it differently. Which is why Longhaul's so great.... -RY