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In systems that value freedom and enterprise, self-interest may be the creative force that leads to growth, greater human welfare and/or happiness. This has been particularly emphasized by economists such as F.A. HayekW and conservative politicians; however in more moderate forms it is widely accepted as a natural and healthy motivation.
Self-interest as a destructive force
This is seen in the global lack of response to the crises we face:
- Increased pollution
- Increased consumption
- Lack of concerted effort at efficiency measures - even money-saving ones such as solar hot water or eliminating perverse incentives to pollute.
Conceptually, it is described as:
- The "tragedy of the commons" - though subject to debate, shows how self-interest has the potential to be destructive.
- Externalities, in economics, give a distorted increased incentive to behavior with greater negative impact, than if all impacts were borne by the person making the decision.
Attempts to eliminating self-interest
Extreme left-wing political systems, utopias (such as Walden TwoW) and communal living arrangements have at times downplayed the importance of self-interest, or attributed it to a society that encourages and breeds selfishness. However the earlier idea of the "Socialist Man,"[verification needed] i.e. the person who no longer acts primarily from self-interest,[verification needed] is no longer given much attention, in late 20th and early 21st century political discussions.
There are yet to be successful medium or large-scale experiments with such new societies, and in some cases the rhetoric has been associated with atrocities - unfairly so in the eyes of their defenders, but quite naturally so in the eyes of those who see collectivism as a dangerous force in politics.
"Enlightened self-interest" is a phrase used to describe ways of action which respect the community, but in so doing are better for the individual.
Choice architecture is about a conscious effort to allow or encourage better decision-making, perhaps by making it easier and recognizing the constraints on decision making - not by manipulation, but by offering alternate paths, while allowing freedom to the individual.
Between extremes: New ways of doing things
Complete self-interest is not serving our planet or society right now. And yet visions of utopias either have failed to deliver, or worse. What alternative visions give us solid reason for hope, recognizing the creative force of self-interest, but checking its excesses and recognizing other important values?