Why Adam Smith Was Only Half Right
When Adam Smith argued that human beings are essentially selfish he was not wrong but only half right. Sure, every baby starts out screaming “Mine, Mine, MINE!,” but while some of us will remain more selfish than others, we all move toward selflessness as we mature. In fact immaturity in adults is usually defined as being “spoiled;” which is just another term for self-indulgent selfishness. In other words the very process of maturation is a journey leading us beyond the innate selfishness we are all born with. Adam Smith was only half right because he didn’t realize that as human beings we are all longing to selflessly “give ourselves away” to something so much bigger and more important than ourselves.
While at first glance it may appear that happiness lies in obtaining our selfish desires, we are actually happiest and most fulfilled when we are sacrificing for something bigger than ourselves: something worth sacrificing for. In fact the so-called spiritual crisis afflicting the West and the epidemic of depression that is following in its wake merely reflect the fact that we have run out of Big Ideas worth sacrificing for.
In the English language the connotations surrounding the word “self-consciousness” are universally negative. Nothing ruins a party, making love, watching a movie, giving a speech, or making a sales pitch faster than being self-conscious. Instead we are happiest and at our best when we are able to “lose” ourselves by “getting out of our own way.” Our unceasing search for ever more novel distractions also demonstrates that what we really want is not a selfish sense of self, but to be “absorbed” in an activity that frees us –at least temporarily- from ourselves. In fact the most debilitating symptom of depression is when life no longer produces anything that can free its victim from the dead weight of selfish self-consciousness. Depressed people can no longer “lose” themselves or be “absorbed” in anything, and the anxiety we all experience when we are bored is yet another example of what happens when we are selfishly “stuck” with only ourselves to think about.
By contrast the most sought after of all human conditions is spontaneity. Spontaneity is a state where our sense of self and the task at hand magically merge and our sense of “self” disappears. When we are spontaneous every shot finds the hoop and every pitch a sale, and this proves that the more we forget ourselves the more successful we are. Much of the attraction of spirituality lies in the notion that we were meant to live every moment of our lives spontaneously, and what is common to every religious tradition is that to live this magical birthright of spontaneity we must transcend selfishness.
As leaders the single biggest mistake we make is failing to realize that despite what people may say, what we all really want is not selfishness but selflessness. One way of describing the evolution of our political and economic models is as a macro trend from selfishness to selflessness. Politics has been a halting movement from the selfishness of absolute rule to the selfless sharing of power with ever larger portions of the population. Ironically the more power is given away the more successful the society becomes. And no matter how selfish our current capitalistic model may be, it is not as selfish as mercantilism and mercantilism was not as selfish as its own predecessor, feudalism.
Nothing here is an argument for dismantling the capitalistic system that has raised untold millions out of poverty. As the prime minister of India recently pointed out, capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in a few short years. Something that a half century of humanitarian effort and a disastrous experiment with socialism was unable to achieve. Nor am I arguing for an end to competition since competition is essential to productivity and innovation.
Instead our 21st Century challenge is to preserve what is best about capitalism while transcending the obvious limitations that led to our current economic woes. Corporate America is replete with examples of companies that are far more successful than their competitors not despite their commitment to high overarching missions worthy of being served and outstanding records for putting the interests of customers first but because of them. Warren Buffet consistently buys great companies at a “Buffet Discount” because he has a reputation for putting selfless ethical considerations ahead of selfish ones.
Transcending capitalism will not be accomplished by ever more regulation, oversight, and enforcement no matter how necessary such measures may be in the short run. Instead transcending capitalism requires a critical mass of people who have experienced- not the change of mind that our business schools labor so hard to produce- but the change ofheart that we usually associate with a spiritual experience. A change of heart that leads us to act decisively on that ancient yet emergent truth that it is in our own self interest to forget our self interest.