Conservative economists talk about self-interest. To point out the obvious: It seems clear that the mainstream economists or economist(s) aligned with the mainstream view or conservative view are frequently to be discovered talking this way: "self-interest is rational" ... is an example of this blather.
What is the manner really in which one's self-interest works? In the real world, self-interest is an understanding or an appreciation. It is a use of one's mind, and not devoid of any understanding of others. That is the only thing that it could be --- since there has to be a mind or an awareness at the other end. We are in fact talking about someone else's self interest.
(Get it? That's a little subtle. When I am talking in the abstract about "self-interest" I cannot be talking about my own, I must in fact be talking about some self-interest in terms of somebody else, and thus, even though I am talking about "self-interest," I am also already talking about somebody else. That is all I was trying to say there. Now back to the action...)
What is the way in which appreciation of one's self functions? The fact is that a business person should probably be minimally intelligent and not more like an animal. To have self-interest or be self-interested there must be this sense or appreciation of self. For the intelligent human I would suggest that self-interest necessarily happens in relation to others.
For the purpose of clarity, let's repeat that ... self-interest happens in relation to others. (That's just as good a sentence as "self-interest is rational," but it depends, I suppose, on what kind of sentences you prefer.) To interact in a market there has to be a consciousness of others and also an ability to interact. Even to steal! Even that usually requires some sense of those others one is stealing from.
One enters the market situation. And when one does so, the understanding of self that one takes into the situation of a market relation is, as said, also an understanding of others. If entering into market relaltions means having a good understanding of the other players in the market then it follows that this is not merely an understanding of oneself. And when we understand this there is not much left of the concept of "self-interest" in the places where the idea is posited and valorized. Where I find this, in particular, is the beginnings of economics textbooks, where either "self-interest" or "rational self-interest" is mentioned. This is how it worked in the textbooks I used when I was in college, to my recollection. The reference is to a few graduate-level courses in economics that I took, in the eighties.
Thus, the idea that conservatively-oriented (or we also tend to say: mainstream) economists have that concerns what they call self-interest of the individual is an abstraction. (If we now ask for a definition of abstraction: something that exists --- but no connection to reality.)
To put it more plainly, it's nonsense.
This stuff about "self-interest" commonly found in the economics and psychology textbooks I used in the seventies and eighties is an abstraction that the person writing the book basically orders undergraduates (or any other comers) to accept. That is not scholarly, still less is it scientific. It is, of course, pedantry. (Which is, perhaps, just what the professor's "job" is, according to sneaky, weird or subversive interpretations of pedagogy --- by both the extreme left and right.) A final assessment of the stuff about self-interest in the beginnings of textbooks of economics (also psychology books), from my point of view, is as follows: it is the assertion of something the textbook's author claims to believes.
I doubt he really believes it. I don't think it works that way.
OK there is some kind of circular logic linked with the word "self-interest" swimming around in professor's head. OK So What. That's purely subjective.
No doubt, either: that authorial voice proclaiming self-interest in the opening pages of his textbook (and, intuitively, I know --or think I do --that it is always a he who will say this stuff) does have some type of "self-interest" operating. He has it as he writes about it. So, of course, -- in that sense -- some type of self-interest is there. That is not exactly the point, which is to say of economics, or of the man's book. It does show that the author is operating out of self-interest alright, so, yes, self-interest is important --- and, Um, he is -- I guess -- writing about self-interest. That may demonstrate that self-interest is important. Right.
But that's another topic entirely. What is it does not tell us about is economics. What the textbook men are asserting is wrong: self-interest, in this pure sense, besides being basically unhealthy is definitely not all that is going on in capitalistic economic situations or in society. Yes, it is important. The concept, which is virtually inoperative, except in the imaginations of these authors of textbooks, does not tell us anything about market economics. Even if some kind of "pure self-interest" is there, what is being written about it certainly amounts to nothing, or less.
All of that is water under the bridge. To discuss it further gives it undue importance. What we are left with is the question of why these bald assertions about self-interest actually exist, and what kind of a world it is that we are living in. That is another question, and one that I do find it worthwhile to ponder on. There is no scholarly merit to the "self-interest" ritual that these guys go through -- I am talking about what are usually white protestant males teaching in the U. S. I am not aware that other countries have achieved this level of perversity. Something really weird is going on in the U. S. of A. This is of great interest, sociologically. But not scholarly interest -- since the statements are purely nonsensical. What we do need to discuss, then, is: why do these persons -- and their texts -- even exist?
How did this school muscle itself into the forefront of college economics in the U. S? What does it mean? These are important questions for American self-reflection. Nowhere else has there been such a complete, absolute takeover of absolute rubbish in academe. Some explanation must be found, and that one does seem like something to investigate.
My investigation is ongoing. But the first step is to get over one's absolute amazement that these idea even exist in these textbooks. Then one has to decide how to talk about it without sounding like it is oneself, and not the text's author, who is mad. This is one of the pitfalls of my task. All this take some time: I have been looking at these college economics materials for some 25 years, off and on, since I took the graduate level "micro-economics" class at the age of about 30. Yeah; I noticed the problem from the start all right. But this kind of thing takes years to fully appreciate. We talk about Stalinism or Fascism as generating propaganda --- this is the same thing and it is going on in capitalistic democracies. (And, let me clarify please, that I do not hate capitalist democracy).
Similar atrocities go on in the field of psychology, too --- I think it is similar. It also is based on the "self-interest" notion. I think economics is the worse --- although some of these psychotherapists can do you a lot of harm, too.