catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Self-interest and prejudice

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These days, self-interest doesn’t have a great press. It is blurred with selfishness and contrasted unfavourably with altruism, generosity, and co-operation. Contrary to what many leftists believe, liberal arguments for self-interest are rare. Instead, liberals tend to take self-interest as a given in human nature. The difference between liberals on one side and leftists and conservatives on the other is over how self-interest should be handled. Conservatives and leftists moralise and legislate against it, liberals try to harness it through the market to achieve positive ends.

It wasn’t always like this. Two excellent works of intellectual archeology, Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests and Stephen Holmes’ Passions and Constraint, show how self-interest was argued for in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a preferable alternative to violent and destructive passions (Samuel Johnson’s 1775 remark that ‘there are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money’ is in this tradition). And looking at the Middle East today, you can see what happens when people are more interested in religion and honour than in pursuing their self-interest.

What’s prompted these musings is this little article in today’s Sunday Age. Many people – such as Victorian Government Minister Rob Hulls – dismiss the Howard Government as “homophobic” for its stance on same-sex couples. But Amanda Vanstone has announced that:

SAME-sex partners of skilled migrants and students are to get the same recognition as married couples by the Immigration Department. … “This change will keep Australia competitive in what is becoming an increasingly intense global market for skilled migrants,” Senator Vanstone said.

Whatever the government’s attitude to homosexuals, they dislike losing out in a market more. It is self-interest winning over prejudice, another chapter in self-interest replacing more destructive motivations.

And in a blow for Rob Hulls anti-homophobic credentials, the same paper has another story entitled “Bracks stymies gay unions bill”. Perhaps Victoria needs a bit more self-interest?

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Written by Admin

March 19, 2006 at 8:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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