Monday, March 26, 2012

Tomáš Sedláček on Self-Interest

Interesting Spiegel interview with Tomáš Sedláček, philosopher / economist and adviser to the Czech Republic.

I don't think he's talking about "greed," exactly. I'd call it purposive human action.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sedláček, in Oliver Stone's 1987 film "Wall Street," the fictional tycoon Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, pronounces the provocative motto of neoliberalism: "Greed is Good." Has the crisis in financial capitalism reduced greed to what it was once before, one of the seven deadly sins?

Sedláček: Gekko succeeds with his greed, but then he falls victim to it. Mankind's oldest stories tell us that greed is always Janus-faced. It is an engine of progress, but it's also the cause of our collapse. Being constantly dissatisfied and always wanting more seems to be an innate natural phenomenon, forming the heart of our civilization. The original sin of the first human couple in the Garden of Eden was the result of greed.

SPIEGEL: Not of temptation and curiosity?

Sedláček: Desire and curiosity are sisters. The snake merely awakened a desire in Eve that was already dormant inside of her. According to Genesis, the forbidden tree was a feast for the eyes.

SPIEGEL: Just like the suggestive images of modern advertising.

Sedláček: Eve and Adam grab the opportunity and eat the fruit. The original sin has the character of excessive, unnecessary consumption. It is not of a sexual nature. A desire for something she doesn't need is awakened in Eve. The living conditions in paradise were complete, and yet everything God had given the two wasn't enough. In this sense, greed isn't just at the birthplace of theoretical economics, but also at the beginning of our history. Greed is the beginning of everything.

In Sedlacek's writing, he is a bit more nuanced. There are two things going on here: 1. Greed is good, or 2. Greed is.

Compare it to gravity. Gravity is a fact. We build things that help us manage it. Without gravity, we have real problems with...well, everything we know. Life in the forms we know it is pretty much inconceivable without gravity.

But would you say, "Gravity is good!"? Probably not.

I think of greed the same way. Social scientists, or idiots like Che Guevara, who try to think of how to get rid of greed make no more sense than telling physicists that their job is to change the physical properties of gravity.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?