Adam Smith never argued that the more selfish we are, the better a market works. His point, rather, is that in a free market, each of us can pursue ends within our narrow sphere of competence and concern—our “self-interest”—and yet an order will emerge that vastly exceeds anyone’s deliberations.Jay Richards explains why Greed is not Good and It is not Capitalism.
Finally, and most importantly, Smith argued that capitalism channels greed. He recognized that human beings are not as virtuous as we ought to be. While many of us may live modestly virtuous lives under the right conditions, it is the rare individual who ever achieves heroic virtue. Given that reality, we should want a social order that channels proper self-interest as well as selfishness into socially desirable outcomes. Any system this side of heaven that can’t channel human selfishness is doomed to failure. That’s the genius of the market economy.
And that’s the problem with socialism and all sorts of nanny-state regulatory prescriptions: They don’t fit the human condition. They concentrate enormous power in the hands of a few political leaders and expect them to remain uncorrupted by the power. Then through aggressive wealth redistribution and hyper-regulation, they discourage the productive pursuit of self-interest, through hard work and enterprise. Instead, they encourage people to pursue their self-interest in unproductive ways such as hoarding, lobbying, or getting the government to steal for them.
In contrast, capitalism is fit for real, fallen human beings. “In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity,” Smith wrote, business people “are led by an invisible hand ... and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.” Notice he says “in spite of.” His point isn’t that the butcher should be selfish, or even that the butcher’s selfishness particularly helps. Rather, he argues that even if the butcher is selfish, he can’t make you buy his meat. He has to offer you meat at a price you’ll willingly buy. He has to look for ways to set up a win-win exchange. Surely that’s good.
So a free market can channel the greed of a butcher. But that’s not the only thing it can channel. It can just as easily channel a butcher’s noble desire for excellence of craft, or his desire to serve his customers well because he likes his neighbors, or his desire to build a successful business that will allow his brilliant daughter to attend better schools and fully develop her gifts. Capitalism doesn’t need greed. What capitalism does need is human creativity and initiative.
Markets and Wages (3) Poor - The Instructions for Economic Life put two other restrictions on free markets. *The Poor* Everyone with wealth has an obligation to care for the poor withi...
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