In his book Sapiens, author Yuval Noah Harari reflects on Adam Smith and writes, “what Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.”
This idea seems rather mean and like it can’t possible be correct when I first read it. When I pause for a second, there is a part of me that wants to be mad at economic and political systems and complain about corporate greed and how it operates with this mindset. But if I pause for even longer and pull myself back further, I see that this idea has even deeper roots than modern American economic and political thought.
The idea of egoism is altruism doesn’t seem too far off from the protestant ethic that has defined America since its inception. The idea is that we all need to be hard-working, avoid vice and excess, and be good people in order to be rewarded by a deity. By doing our individual part we will make the deity happy, and we will help each other and our communities. When we have a whole group of people who have made the deity happy, then we are going to receive some type of compounded reward which will play out at a societal level.
This protestant idea has been a driving force for hardworking Americans with our individualistic political system and capitalistic economy. We might dislike corporate greed and we might be able to find plenty of flaws where broken markets produce rents that hurt everyone. But the egoism is altruism idea which may incentivize such corporate greed extends beyond companies and rocket riding billionaires. It is at the heart of the expectations of American society. We are all expected to work hard and achieve high standards and results. Striving for our individual best, in whatever it is we are doing, doesn’t just help us, it helps everyone. At least that is the way that our political and economic systems operate and it is how we understand ourselves relative to others. The idea is beyond corporate greed and economics. It extends into nearly every aspect of our lives and culture.