Self-interest versus Selfishness

by | Jan 24, 2011

[On his show] Rush Limbaugh was speaking about the “invisible hand” described by Adam Smith. It is not out of benevolence, Rush said, that your grocer sells you food. It is the grocer’s self-interest–his desire to feed his family–that motivates him. But, Rush quickly added, self-interest is not selfishness. Is this true? Is there a […]

[On his show] Rush Limbaugh was speaking about the “invisible hand” described by Adam Smith. It is not out of benevolence, Rush said, that your grocer sells you food. It is the grocer’s self-interest–his desire to feed his family–that motivates him. But, Rush quickly added, self-interest is not selfishness. Is this true? Is there a difference between self-interest and selfishness?

Rush did not explain the alleged difference, so I can only speculate why he made such a distinction. However, that speculation is well-founded. Like most conservatives, Rush is an altruist. Altruism holds that we have a moral duty to help those in need, that we must self-sacrificially serve others.

According to altruism, selfishness means sacrificing others to oneself. To the altruist, sacrifice is a necessary fact of life, and the only question is who will sacrifice. To embrace selfishness is to reject altruism.

Contrary to the claims of altruists, selfishness means “concern with one’s own interests.” It means the pursuit of one’s own self-interest. There is no dichotomy between self-interest and selfishness.

Rush was correct. The grocer does not sell you food out of benevolence. He is pursuing his own interests, just as you are when you engage in any transaction. You do not go to work each day out of kindness to your boss. You do it to earn money to sustain and enjoy your life. You do not invest your money in order to enrich your stock broker. You do it to build wealth. You do not hire a contractor because you feel sorry for him. You do it because you need repairs on your home. And your employer, your stock broker, and your contractor are each pursuing their own interests.

When individual rights–the moral right of each individual to act as he deems best–are respected and protected, each of us is free to produce and trade values. Each of us is free to pursue the values that we want, and our interactions with others must be based on their voluntary consent. When individual rights are protected, each of us is free to be selfish–to pursue our own happiness.

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Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

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