Myth: Markets promote greed and selfishness

When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading freely in markets, many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The second myth — Markets Promote Greed and Selfishness — and Palmer’s refutation is below. The complete series of myths and responses is at Twenty Myths about Markets.

Palmer is editor of the recent book The Morality of Capitalism. He will be in Overland Park and Wichita in May speaking on the moral case for capitalism. For more information and to register for these events see The Morality of Capitalism.

Myth: Markets promote greed and selfishness

Myth: People in markets are just trying to find the lowest prices or make the highest profits. As such, they’re motivated only by greed and selfishness, not by concern for others.

Tom G. Palmer: Markets neither promote nor dampen selfishness or greed. They make it possible for the most altruistic, as well as the most selfish, to advance their purposes in peace. Those who dedicate their lives to helping others use markets to advance their purposes, no less than those whose goal is to increase their store of wealth. Some of the latter even accumulate wealth for the purpose of increasing their ability to help others. George Soros and Bill Gates are examples of the latter; they earn huge amounts of money, at least partly in order to increase their ability to help others through their vast charitable activities.

A Mother Teresa wants to use the wealth available to her to feed, clothe, and comfort the greatest number of people. Markets allow her to find the lowest prices for blankets, for food, and for medicines to care for those who need her assistance. Markets allow the creation of wealth that can be used to help the unfortunate and facilitate the charitable to maximize their ability to help others. Markets make possible the charity of the charitable.

A common mistake is to identify the purposes of people with their “self-interest,” which is then in turn confused with “selfishness.” The purposes of people in the market are indeed purposes of selves, but as selves with purposes we are also concerned about the interests and well being of others — our family members, our friends, our neighbors, and even total strangers whom we will never meet. And as noted above, markets help to condition people to consider the needs of others, including total strangers.

As has often been pointed out, the deepest foundation of human society is not love or even friendship. Love and friendship are the fruits of mutual benefit through cooperation, whether in small or in large groups. Without such mutual benefit, society would simply be impossible. Without the possibility of mutual benefit, Tom’s good would be June’s bad, and vice versa, and they could never be cooperators, never be colleagues, never be friends. Cooperation is tremendously enhanced by markets, which allow cooperation even among those who are not personally known to each other, who don’t share the same religion or language, and who may never meet. The existence of potential gains from trade and the facilitation of trade by well-defined and legally secure property rights make possible charity among strangers, and love and friendship across borders.


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