We assert a simple proposition: that fundamental shifts in popular understanding of how the world works necessarily produce fundamental shifts in our conception of self-interest, which in turn necessarily produce fundamental shifts in how we think to order our societies.
Ok. This is going deep. Go on.
Today, most of the public is unaware that we are in the midst of a moment of new understanding. In recent decades, a revolution has taken place in our scientific and mathematical understanding of the systemic nature of the world we inhabit. …
In traditional economic theory, as in politics, we Americans are taught to believe that selfishness is next to godliness. We are taught that the market is at its most efficient when individuals act rationally to maximize their own self-interest without regard to the effects on anyone else. We are taught that democracy is at its most functional when individuals and factions pursue their own self-interest aggressively. In both instances, we are taught that an invisible hand converts this relentless clash and competition of self-seekers into a greater good.
Now diving into our outdated understanding of self-interest:
Over time, the rational self-seeking of the American has been elevated into an ideology now as strong and totalizing as the divine right of kings once was in medieval Europe. Homo economicus, the rationalist self-seeker of orthodox economics, along with his cousin Homo politicus, gradually came to define what is considered normal in the market and politics. We’ve convinced ourselves that a million individual acts of selfishness magically add up to a common good. And we’ve paid a great price for such arrogance. We have today a dominant legal and economic doctrine that treats people as disconnected automatons and treats the mess we leave behind as someone else’s problem. We also have, in the Great Recession, painful evidence of the limits of this doctrine’s usefulness.
But now a new story is unfolding.
Is this vision of self-interest overly aspirational?
True self-interest is mutual interest. The best way to improve your likelihood of surviving and thriving is to make sure those around you survive and thrive. Notwithstanding American mythology about selfishness making the world go round, humans have in fact evolved—have been selected—to look out for others in their group and, in so doing, to look out for self. We exist today because this is how our ancestors behaved. We evolve today by ensuring that our definition of “our group” is wide enough to take advantage of diversity and narrow enough to be actionable.
This is a story, in short, about self-interest that is smart, or “self-interest properly understood,” as Tocqueville put it. …
The contract between the new and old stories of self-interest —like any paradigmatic shift in the public imagination—is not just a philosophical curiosity. It plays out in how we interpret and understand—and therefore, prepare for or prevent—calamities like global financial meltdowns or catastrophic climate change or political gridlock. And it will transform the way we think about three basic elements of a democratic society: citizenship, economy, government.