Altruism through selfish self-interest

Last week, I wrote: “Corporations already do share wealth” Which is true, but not precisely true, as a few commenters pointed out.

It’s the word “share” that causes the problem.

It’s true that corporations “share” wealth. But not in the same way that children — we hope — “share” toys. Not the way you “share” a sandwich. This corporate “sharing” isn’t a zero-sum activity. It’s not “either you get it or I get it.” This “sharing” is more: I have to give to you so that I can get more in the future.

Here’s something I wrote back in 2004:

I’ve sometimes marveled at the level of cooperation that exists in our society.

I remember the first time this occurred to me: it was at a four-way stop sign. I pulled up, waited for the van ahead of me to go, then took my place at the intersection, waited again for two vehicles on the cross street, and the oncoming car turning left in front of me. Then, the others all waited for me, as I drove through.

Man, I thought. That’s cooperation. That’s teamwork, and it’s happening every day, a dozen times per person, all across the country. We cooperate with people we’ve never seen before, and will never see again.

Sure, there is the occasional jerk who cuts you off, or who won’t let you merge, or who drives drunk. But the vast majority of the time, we’re taking care of each other out there.

Then I realized: sure, we’re cooperating, but not out of altruism. No, we’re cooperating because of good old-fashioned self-interest.

I could have simply rolled through the stop sign, if I’d chosen to. And what would have happened? Probably nothing: the other cars were hardly moving, and would have stopped in plenty of time to give me the one-finger salute.

Or, maybe not. Fender bender, and my fault — hello thousand-dollar repair bill and higher insurance premiums. Or, maybe a cop sees me. Ticket, couple hundred bucks, which I then have to go home and explain to my wife.

Rather than an example of community-minded teamwork, our traffic system turns out to be a perfect example of simple, individual self-interest, which makes a vast, complex, interconnected environment work.

There are lots of similar examples in the world. Do bees know they’re helping make flowers? No, they’re just trying to store up some food. Self interest.

The owner of a snack food manufacturing company decides to open a second location. Is he thinking about that decision’s effect on the broader economy? The new jobs, increased demand for labor and for raw materials, new business for his suppliers, and more work for the trucking companies?

Or is he just trying to line his own pockets?

I’ll bet on the latter. Still, by his actions, selfishly motivated as they may be, he has a positive effect on the economy and on other people.

Corporations exist to make money. To profit. If they can’t profit financially, they won’t exist. In this way, they are cousins to the rest of us individuals. You, me, the barefooted guy selling oranges in Delhi.

Do you work for free? No. Unless you have a trust fund or sugar daddy, you can’t. I can’t. I have to make money. I have to profit. So I develop and sell my skills; my experience; my abilities. So do you.

So do corporations. We sell our labor to them, and they sell their products to us. Neither side has the other’s well-being in mind; and yet, both sides provide the other with exactly what they need. Both sides need the other side to have what they need, so that they themselves can have what they need.

It’s not breaking-a-cookie-in-half sharing. It’s not human-ladder cooperation. It’s everybody-wins self-interest.

Where would we be without it?

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