“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Lord Acton

Whether in the world’s superpowers of America and China, sometimes in our own families, and many times in business, we see the tragedies of unbridled self-interest unfolding before us. Raw self-interest is normally motivated by fear and/or greed. It is an incredibly potent force, the driver, indeed, for evolution itself - but if it is not harnessed by the greater good it leads to massive missed opportunities and sometimes disastrous outcomes.

Possibly the greatest 20th century exponent of unbridled self-interest was Ayn Rand, and her ideas still permeate politics today. Her own personal life demonstrated its tragedies, but people still turn to her philosophy for inspiration.

So in this commentary, while acknowledging the essential role that self-interest has in driving human progress in all walks of life, we draw attention to how it can be leveraged to achieve much more - and to avoid those disastrous outcomes - through enlightened, not unbridled, self-interest.

In 2009, just after the financial crash, the BBC broadcast a small documentary series called ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace’. Starting with Ayn Rand, it charted the systemic analysis of, and the theories surrounding, unbridled self-interest, and the early claims that it would allow us to dispense with political control without leading to anarchy.

Much of the series dwelt on the impact of this thinking on the tech moguls of Silicon Valley as they planned to break free of political dictat. It also showed how the philosophy steered Alan Greenspan in his management of the world economy leading up to the financial crash in 2009; it is not hard to see how the collapsing of the separation of agent and principal roles in 1986 had led directly to raw self-interest running rampant across the financial system.

‘All Watched Over ..’ is not a complimentary report on the past sixty years, and perhaps the fact that it was so revealing and critical of those who have steered the modern economy might explain why the recordings are so difficult to find today.

The disillusion which set in, as many people came to see through the illusory promises of an undirected and free society driven by raw self-interest, is palpable: typical is this extract from Carmen Hermosillo’s blog in 1994. The great fallacy in this thinking is, of course, that humans are not all equal in terms of intellect and influence, let alone wealth: and George Orwell had illustrated how exploitation takes hold in his book ’Animal Farm’ a decade before Ayn Rand started expounding her views.

‘All Watched Over ..’ concluded with the words ‘Machines Without Loving Grace’ emblazoned across the screen.

One of the most interesting things about the series is the continual search for an ecological and mathematical explanation of self-interest, and whether there can be space for altruism in its midst. The last episode charts the attempt by George Price to define altruism as a self-interested survival system of our genes, as if they have a life of their own - seeing our bodies as temporary carriers of their immortality.

Interestingly, faith doesn’t feature strongly in the series except for reporting George Price’s conversion to Christianity as a shock reaction to his genetic conclusions, and how that distress then led to his death.

Many questions left unanswered. But so much of our economic, social and political system finds it hard to square self-interest with the greater good. In economic life, the greater good is so often placed in a charitable context, as if it doesn’t belong alongside the pursuit of short-term results. In political life we see the contrast between Thatcher (‘There is no such thing as society’) and the outpouring of good works which have marked our lockdown experience over the past four months. We find it difficult to see how to reconcile reducing state intervention with the use of universal benefit driven welfare in our search for a fairer society: capitalists are slow to embrace egalitarianism, and socialists are slow to embrace free enterprise.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the opportunity for China to join the world community seems doomed to failure as Hong Kong’s free society is crushed; while in the United States Donald Trump has brandished the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ in a raw expression of national self-interest that has had precisely the opposite effect.

Possibly the most troubling aspect of unbridled self-interest is its essentially short-term characteristics: but, in a society where the present has so much influence on the future, short-termism can be disastrous. That’s why in a business context it’s so important that longer-term strategy should always sit alongside delivery: a healthy bottom line is great news, but investors need also to see a big picture which will deliver in the years to come. But enlightened self-interest can be found, and can be highly effective in a commercial environment.

Finally, it’s worth noting that in faith terms the call to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’ is not designed to minimise self-interest but to maximise respect for others. In both the ‘Feeding of the 5,000’ and the parable of the talents we can see how enterprise and a generosity of spirit can work well together, and I would describe that process as enlightened self-interest. In order to achieve not just quick wins but also real long-term growth, we must walk alongside people, respect others and empower them to achieve their potential in order to open up those massive future opportunities before us all.

Gavin Oldham OBE

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