It all comes down to social incentives
Behind every great fortune is a great crime. It’s a well-known saying that no doubt carries some weight. And yet, no one seems to care. If you’re rich, you’re revered. If you’re a high-flying executive, you’re respected. If you’re a successful entrepreneur, you’re venerated. This is only natural, seeing as being the richest is an aspirational goal shared by most. But how do those who reach the top, reach the top?
Like everything in life, there are some unwritten rules when it comes to how to behave in a market economy where everyone is in it for themselves. Show integrity? That’s for losers. Be honest. See how quickly you get burnt. Be selfless? It’s a ticket to nowhere. Ruthlessness, on the other hand, now there’s a quality to be rewarded. Self-serving behaviour — the more, the better. Greed, it’s what capitalism is built upon.
Again, we have to place these rather undesirable qualities in context. A CEO can hardly have compassion for sacking employees if it benefits the bottom line. A hedge fund manager won’t last long if they think of all the victims of speculative trades. An entrepreneur won’t be able to flourish if they don’t look to crush the competition. If you want to reach the top you pretty much have to have every undesirable characteristic going. Inevitably then it creates an environment where rotten apples thrive. The psychopaths, the selfish, the greedy. It’s a system that rewards the worst among us.
But why? It all comes down to our beliefs about human nature.
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations established the idea that self-interest is the basis of human motivation. The role of self-interest is vital in society because, as Smith put it, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In other words, in any transaction, each individual is driven by their self-interest, but neither can get what they want without addressing what the other individual wants. It’s this rational self-interest that acts as an invisible hand that leads to economic prosperity and the utilitarian goal — the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Smith’s argument was complemented by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Published eighty-three years after The Wealth of Nations in 1859, Darwin’s theory helped cement the idea that human nature is defined by the self-interest of individuals.
To greatly simplify his great work, Darwin argued that every living thing is a product of natural selection. There are two key components to this process: the first is the idea of spontaneous variation in the characteristics of plants and animals. The second is how these variations come to be selected.
Selection takes place at the individual level, meaning the behaviour and physical characteristics of any species “must evolve in ways that favour the reproductive interests not of the species as a whole but of its individual members.” Every living thing is hardwired to make choices that will serve its interests over the rest of the population. Doing so ensures it has a competitive advantage over other members of the species that will allow it to reproduce. As every living thing is hardwired to behave in such a way, life is inherently self-interested. This is nature’s strategy to ensure the fittest survive, allowing a species to thrive.
While Darwin questioned the inherent selfishness of all living things, the characteristic that has prevailed is that people are fundamentally selfish. This belief has morphed into the idea that society is governed by a simple yet powerful dictum — the ‘survival of the fittest’. The term was coined by biologist Herbert Spencer in his book The Principles of Biology to describe how animals most suited to their environment have the best chance of survival. But the term has been misappropriated to create a belief society is a dog-eat-dog jungle, where only the most ruthless prevail. Other individuals are either competitors who are an obstacle to your success or they can be manipulated for your gain. If anyone suffers along the way, well, it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.
In the same way that Smith argued the self-interest of individuals will lead to the best social outcomes in an economic sense, so the self-interest of individuals will lead to the survival of the fittest and the best outcomes for species in a biological sense. When combined, the idea of selfish, self-interested individuals forms the foundations of how we come to understand human nature, in particular when it comes to how we behave in markets.
These beliefs have some rather unsavoury consequences. From a young age, we understand that the characteristics we must exhibit to be successful are greed and self-interest. Seeing as we live in competitive markets where high-value jobs are in short supply, it’s the most ruthless, savvy, manipulative individuals that tend to rise to the top.
So what’s the issue with a system that encourages rotten apples to reach the top?
For starters, self-serving behaviour is never in the interest of society, but of individuals. So all kinds of social maladies result from a belief that individual interests outweigh the interests of the communities we are part of. This is important when we think about what sustainable societies should look like. Or rather, what they shouldn’t look like.
Little thought, if any, is given to what behaviours should be encouraged in a sustainable society. Looking at the actions being taken, the focus is all about decarbonising and making energy efficiencies to reach the goal of net zero. The assumption is that should this goal be achieved we’ll have reached destination sustainability.
So let’s look into the crystal ball that is the future and imagine a scenario where we have achieved net zero. We’ll source most of our energy from renewables — whoop-de-doo — but how could we possibly feel a sense of accomplishment if homelessness remains rampant, if queues for foodbanks continue getting longer by the day if communities are falling apart by the seams? How can we possibly be proud of a society where a few have too much while a silent majority suffer the debilitating impacts of poverty?
Our approach to sustainability is a reflection of the views of human nature that dominate in society. If the world around me is okay, then there is nothing to worry about.
If you teach people that success centres on having more than everyone else, then the behaviour you encourage is to be self-serving, and ruthless. If, on the other hand, you teach people that the success of individuals hinges on the success of society as a whole, then how we come to see the world and our role in it changes. Rather than islands we begin seeing each person as part of an interconnected web. The success of each member of that web hinges on each person having an awareness they are part of an interconnected whole.
In such a society we would then learn from a young age that the characteristics that are key to success include selflessness, compassion, and generosity. In such a society the cream would rise to the top. The rot? It would sink to the bottom — where it belongs.
The idea that a market economy leads to the greatest good for the greatest number is a myth that has never played out in reality. It leads to the greatest good for the fewest number — and the nature of markets means that number will always be the most ruthless, selfish and greedy individuals among us. If those at the forefront of efforts to create sustainable societies don’t feel the need to question this current state of affairs, then the rot will inevitably continue rising to the top.