I'm closing in on 65-and-a-half-years old and I never knew about Altruism as an economic concept until I read "My Journeys in Economic Theory," by the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, Edmund Phelps.
Like most people, I suppose, I thought Altruism was simply a fancy word for abiding by the Golden Rule, that is doing unto others as you would have them do to you. Or, to put it another way, from the story told about the great Babylonian rabbi from about two-millennia ago. The story goes like this:
"One famous account in the Talmud tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism but only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while the prospective convert stood on one foot.
He went to Hillel who said, "What is hateful to you, do not
do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it."
That's what I thought Altruism was, a general kindness.
But serious economists have a different viewpoint of Altruism--and a harsher one, compared to my more-Hillel-like point-of-view.
Stopping at red lights, for instance, is considered Altruistic, because stopping, obeying the law and other societal conventions results in an "unexpected gain for all--a collective good." And we're not for all--we're not for the collective good.
We're in it for ourselves and ourselves only. As Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy says to Eva Marie Saint at Edie Dugan, "You wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you." (2:08-2:18, if you don't have four minutes to spare for Brando.)
In other words, why should we stop at red lights? What good does it do us? How does it benefit ME?
To my old eyes, it seems that America's lack of belief in Altruism is leading to--this is melodramatic--the early stages of "systems collapse." [Systems collapse describes the sudden inability of once prosperous populations to continue with what had ensured them the good life as they knew it.]
When a vast number of people no longer believe in the greater good to the point where they'll not lift a finger to help others or pay taxes so others can have schools, healthcare, decent housing and the other appurtenances of civilization, everything falls apart.
It's happening in our industry, I'm afraid. The people at the top no longer believe--or care about--the health of the industry, the companies they control or the people who ostensibly work for them. The no red light metaphor applies here. "Why should I pay you a decent wage? What good does it do me?"
This is all dour, I know.
But I learned it from a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Edmund Phelps, and it's been keeping me up nights. I don't want to believe it any more than I want to believe that that weed I pulled out of the dirt with my bare hands was poison ivy.
But damn, something itches.