“Love your neighbor as yourself.” This injunction is mentioned once in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:18) and seven times in the New Testament (Matt. 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8) It is the core Christian ethic for relating to others. The antithesis of loving others is selfishness. A central element of market economies is self-interest. Therefore, market economics is antithetical to Christian living.
This is the logic presented by many social justice advocates looking for a new Kingdom economics but is the characterization correct? No. It presumes that “self-interest,” in keeping with colloquial usage, is a synonym for “selfishness.” Few other misconceptions about economics generate more confusion than this one.
In economics, a self-interested action is purposive behavior. Each act taken is an expression of preference for that act versus other acts we might have taken. We are neither automatons nor a bundle of random firing neurons. Some calculus tells us which action to take. If I jump in front of a gun fired at a friend, then both the shooter and I have engaged in self-interested behavior. Self-Interest is not selfishness.
So why is there a widely shared perception that market economics is based on selfishness and greed? There are three contributors to the misunderstanding: semantics, economists and pop culture, errant piety.
The words “self-interest” and “selfish” are used as synonyms in our day but connotations of words change in over time. In the U. S. Constitution, “liberty” essentially meant not being imprisoned but it has taken on other layers of meaning sense. The idea of “self-interest” entered economic thought through Adam Smith. He used it synonymously with “self-love.” What did he mean?
Webster’s says self-interest is, “Regard for one’s own interest or advantage, especially with disregard for others.” That second clause is the rub. “With disregard for others” was not the connotation Smith gave to the term. Unlike animals that mature into complete independence, human beings are dependent upon exchange. Benevolence was Smith’s highest virtue but as there is a constant need to coordinate meeting each other’s needs benevolence alone is insufficient. Smith’s position was that you served your self-interest when you served the self-interest of others. The idea of wanton pursuit of unrestrained desires would have been objectionable to Smith.
Economists & Pop Culture
There have been strands of economic thought that gave voice to the idea of rational egoism. With neoclassical economics at the end of the Nineteenth Century came the idea of homo economicus, the utility calculating human at the center of economic analysis. He weighs every decision to optimize personal advantage through rational economic analysis. Probably the biggest boosters of this thinking were economists and activists influenced by novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, with her exhortation of freedom from all restraints in pursuit of self-actualization. Many of these economic thinkers appropriated and distorted Smith’s writings to give credence to their own views, including the distortions of “self-interest” and “invisible hand.” You can find economists who champion selfishness, but they do so on grounds other than economics … just as there are scientists who confuse methodological naturalism for their own metaphysical naturalism and declare that science proves there is no God.
Pop culture and critics of market economies like to lift up Gordon Geko’s (from Wall Street) “Greed is good” as emblematic of market economies … that it is a defining feature promoted by economists. Clearly greed is present in market economies but it has also been present in every other economy throughout history. No system will ever eliminate greed.
My experience has been that most economists view “self-interest” as purposive behavior as described above. But when economists try to enter into discussion with theologians, I sense there is a very high level of suspicion among theologians that someone is trying to paint lipstick on a capitalist pig … trying to justify “selfishness.” It should not be surprising that there is considerable misunderstanding about “self-interest” but a serious examination of economics requires going beyond popularized narratives that misrepresent economic views. Theologians know theology can be unjustly trivialized through guilt by association with the worst representatives of the field (e.g. All scientists are God haters like Richard Dawkins). It is just as unjust with economics.
Finally, some people view “loving others” and “loving self” as antithetical values. It is win lose … it is a zero-sum game. Others win is when I lose. This is not the view of scripture. John Stackhouse writes:
The intended relationship between God, others, and us is multiplicative, not zero-sum. It is a win-win-win multiplicative dynamic in which God wins, others win, and we win. Properly disciplined self-interest enables us to become well-functioning contributive members of the community. We internalize the reality that our interests are inextricably entwined with God’s interests and the interests of others, enabling us to weigh alternatives and choose those that lead to the salvation of our lives (Matt 26:24-27) and to the piling up eternal treasure (Matt: 19:21), while simultaneously leading to the salvation of other’s lives and the amassing of their treasure, all of which furthers God’s interests and glorifies him. The self-interest calculus for purposive behavior for fallen people is self above all else but among the redeemed it is self in proper relationship to God and other … but both use have a self-interest calculus.