Adam Smith made a distinction between self-interest and selfishness — and he knew that too much of the latter would lead a nation to ruin.
It has been over a month since Greg Smith’s letter of resignation sent Goldman Sachs into full PR panic mode. Since then, the firm has completed its great “muppet” sweep, Mr. Smith has secured a blockbuster book deal, and Lloyd Blankfein has found himself fighting off stories of a growing power struggle at the top of Goldman high command.
All of this makes for good copy, but it risks obscuring the enduring moral dilemma at the heart of the original letter. Namely, when it comes to doing business, can we make a meaningful distinction between self-interest and selfishness? Or, apropos of Mr. Smith, should a place like Goldman ever hold itself to a higher standard than “How much money did we make off the client?”
Another Smith certainly thought so: Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics. He first made his name as a moral philosopher with The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a careful diagnosis of the concern we have for others, the attention we show ourselves, and how the tension between the two underwrites a common code of ethics.
One of the principal villains of Smith’s work was Bernard Mandeville, an occasional philosopher who impishly elided fine-grained distinctions. His scandalous work,The Fable of the Bees, was an allegorical poem involving a thriving beehive that bore more than passing resemblance to 18th-century England. Accounting for the affluence and ease the bees enjoyed, Mandeville made two contentions sufficient to give any high-minded economist heartburn.
First, he claimed there was no essential difference, morally speaking, between the con man and the merchant. Both were driven by selfish instincts to get the better of their fellow man (or bee), and to that end, both trucked in deceit. Yes, the con man broke the law, but the merchant hid behind it.
Mandeville’s second claim was even more scabrous: So be it. Vice, not virtue, kept the wheels of commerce turning, with the benefits shared by all:
Thus Vice nurs’d Ingenuity,
Which join’d with Time and Industry,
Had carry’d Life’s Conveniences,
It’s real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease,
To such a Height, the very Poor
Liv’d better than the Rich before,
And nothing could be added more.
If these lines sound a little bit like “greed is good,” then you get Mandeville’s point. Human beings are selfish, and thank goodness for it. Otherwise, we might end up like the bees, who are nearly wiped out after a spell of virtue saps their ambition, spoils their economy, and exposes them to outside attack.