from David Ruccio
What’s the alternative to an economy based on self-interest?
As it turns out, two different proposals to move beyond self-interest, both related to the Occupy Wall Street movement, crossed my desk at the same time.
The first, by Stephen Healy and Boone Shear [ht: gh], is based on the idea that economic relations based on self-interest are only one possibility among many. The problem is,
Ethical values and actions beyond self-interest are understood in our present society to be extra-economic; they are supposed to take place outside the formal economy. It is precisely for this reason that they are frequently dismissed as mere sentimentality. How then do we move ethical values and social commitment to the very core of our economic values? Is this even possible?
Their view is that Occupy Wall Street has given the gift of recognizing economic enterprises that encourage community rather than individualism, which already exist in the midst of an otherwise capitalist economy. They give the examples of the Alliance to Develop Power, Worcester Energy Barn Raisers, and the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives—all in Massachusetts.
Coincidentally, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has elaborated a similar critique of self-interest in the context of the current crises, although its proposals for an alternative economy tend in a more macroeconomic direction.*
The inequalities and distortions of capitalist development are often an expression not only of economic liberalism but also of utilitarian thinking: that is, theoretical and practical approaches according to which what is useful for the individual leads to the good of the community. This saying has a core of truth, but it cannot be ignored that individual utility – even where it is legitimate – does not always favour the common good. In many cases a spirit of solidarity is called for that transcends personal utility for the good of the community.
The Council focuses on reforming the international financial and monetary, based on the idea of creating “some form of global monetary management. . .as a first stage in a longer effort by the global community to steer its institutions towards achieving the common good.”
The criticisms of self-interest by Healy and Shear and by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, while looking to the creation of alternative economic institutions at different levels—in the former case, at the level of individual enterprises; in the latter, at the international level—certainly share a commitment to community and the common good.
They also share a commitment, as expressed by the Council, to “the revolutionary power of ‘forward-looking imagination’ that can perceive the possibilities inscribed in the present and guide people towards a new future.”
* According to E. J. Dionne Jr. [ht: mkb], the Vatican denied that its report was a direct response to the Occupy Wall Street movement. But, as Dionne explains, it’s clear the report got more attention because of the issues raised by the worldwide movement.