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Book Review : The Argument Against Unbridled Self-Interest

May 20, 1986|LEE DEMBART

The Battle for Human Nature: Science, Morality and Modern Life by Barry Schwartz (W. W. Norton: $17.95)

As many people, including David Stockman, have recently come to realize, democracy contains a structural flaw: The people's representatives cannot be prevented from bribing the people with money in exchange for their votes.

Thus it is that taxes can be cut so much more easily than spending. Thus it is that every group that goes to Congress with its hand out gets its palm greased. Thus it is that despite all the clamor about the need for balanced budgets and the danger of big deficits, the budget will never be balanced. Every dollar that the Treasury spends goes to somebody's constituent, and constituents--read voters--cannot be denied.

This analysis is based on the unspoken assumption that people are selfish. The amount of evidence supporting this assumption is so large that we accept it as a given of human nature. Does anyone doubt it? People act so as to maximize their self-interest. Economists say so. Sociobiologists say so. Behavioral psychologists say so.

A Doubting Voice

Well, Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore College, doubts it. He doesn't deny that even a cursory perusal of the world leads to the conclusion that people are selfish. But he does deny that people are selfish because it is their nature to be selfish, that evolution has conspired to make it so and that selfish behavior is unalterably in our genes.

Rather, Schwartz says in this provocative and richly textured book, people act selfishly because they have been taught to act selfishly. Before Adam Smith created economics--and capitalism--Schwartz says, the invisible hand of the marketplace did not inexorably lead people to accumulate possessions and wealth. There were other values, he says, such as morality and social concern.

However, he argues, once the marketplace takes hold and everyone assumes that people are by nature selfish, the assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a society where people behave selfishly, those who behave otherwise do so at great risk. He calls this "economic imperialism."

What's more, after a while, no one questions the assumption about human nature, which is exactly what Schwartz sets out to do. His method is intriguing. He makes compelling cases on behalf of economics, sociobiology and behavior theory and shows how they reinforce each other's views of human nature, a strong argument on behalf of any scientific theory.

Having done that, Schwartz then argues that each of these disciplines is inadequate to explain the facts and that none of them is as powerful an explanation as it claims to be. Most important, he says, people act the way they do because of cultural pressures and not because of any innate, biological imperative. The significance of this conclusion is that people can create different cultural institutions with different cultural pressures if they choose to. And Schwartz thinks they certainly should choose to.

"What should be understood as the result of local, cultural and historical contingency comes instead to be understood as universal, biological necessity," he writes. "Cultural practices can be changed. People can analyze them, evaluate their consequences, and if they find them ineffective, inappropriate, immoral or otherwise undesirable, they can alter them. Biological necessities cannot be changed. People are stuck with them whether they like them or not."

Yes, he says, "It may be important to understand that, in the modern world, the pursuit of self-interest is the principal guide to conduct. But it is just as important to understand that the modern world is this way because we , not God or Darwin, have made it this way."

Compelling Analyses

Schwartz's analyses of the inadequacies of contemporary scientific views of human nature are compelling, but the consequences are even more worthy of note.

Up till now, unbridled individual selfishness has led to the rise of the richest society in history. In modern industrialized countries, more people enjoy more benefits than ever before. Schwartz acknowledges the paradox: When everyone acts for himself, great benefits result for most people, if not all.

But, he says, continued selfishness holds within it the seeds of destruction of both our economic and political systems.

"Neither the market itself nor the democratic political system we inhabit will be able to survive the erosion of morality and social concern that economic imperialism brings in its wake," Schwartz writes.

And now, after this great buildup and drum roll, Schwartz falls down. For he has no alternative to propose. Over and over he wrings his hands about the need for new social institutions that would teach people to say something other than "me, me, me." But if he knows what those institutions are--or how to substitute them for capitalism--he is keeping it a secret.

Furthermore, he recognizes that most people seem to like things just the way they are, thank you, and they are unlikely to be swayed by his call for a new economic and moral order.

So what is to be done to avoid the economic and political catastrophe that he foresees? Schwartz doesn't have anything to offer, and he doesn't think many people would listen if he did. That is probably the least controversial of his conclusions.

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