Richard M. Salsman on Caricatures of Self-Interest

Given the importance of helping people to understand the nature and virtue of self-interest, and given the extent to which this concept is misunderstood and maligned in academia and in the culture at large, Richard Salsman’s recent essay “Common Caricatures of Self-Interest and Their Common Source” is a superb addition to the corpus of material on rational egoism.

Among the crucial values of this essay, Salsman examines, one by one, the seven most common misconceptions about self-interest, exposing the errors and fallacies involved in each. He also categorizes and labels these misconceptions in a novel and memorable way, assesses their use in economics and politics, and homes in on the underlying premise that gives rise to much of this conceptual mayhem: “the assumption that persons, whether acting in the economic or political realm, are substantively non-rational.”

Check out the introduction below. If you find it interesting, read the whole essay. It is profoundly good.


There exists in the social sciences no widely established, non-trivial definition or conception of self-interest; worse, numerous misconceptions permeate assessments of this crucial motive. Below I identify the most common caricatures of self-interest: that it is automatic, myopic, atomistic, materialistic, hedonistic, antagonistic, and/or sadistic. I assess the use of such caricatures in economic and political theory. I further suggest its source: the assumption that persons, whether acting in the economic or political realm, are substantively non-rational. I next relate my taxonomy to a specific case: the “public choice” paradigm. To its credit, public choice theory provides a unified conception of self-interest, insisting that it is the key motive driving economic and political actors alike, albeit dissimilarly (mostly a positive factor in markets, but mostly a negative one in politics). Yet this paradigm, not unlike its competitors, is weakened when it accepts the caricatures and endorses the notion that rationality can apply only to a means-ends nexus and not also to ends.

A caricature is an intentional exaggeration or distortion of some person, thing, or idea for purposes of ridicule, debasement, and dismissal. It’s akin to creating, then destroying, a “straw man,” which, however entertaining or satirical, does not constitute a scientific endeavor. Those seeking to advance genuine science in the social sciences should be careful to eschew caricature.

A realistic conception of self-interest is needed in the social sciences generally and public choice theory specifically; if widely adopted, this realist conception could boost explanatory power and perhaps even elevate what’s possible in our polity. A significant result of the spread of public choice theory in the past half-century is a widening distrust and disdain of government, politicians, and policymaking; by now each is suspected of being “contaminated” by self-interest, no less than are markets. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, there is now “a plague on both their houses.” Accounts of “government failure” now routinely accompany those of “market failure,” so failure now appears ubiquitous, in markets and politics alike. Some theorists insist that “markets fail” due mainly to self-interest but that governments can “fix” such failure, because they are public-interested; detractors (public choice theorists) insist that government officials are no less self-interested than are market operators, so political “fixes” can make matters worse, which implies that markets indeed are mistake-prone and precarious, due to self-interest. Thus the sides nearly converge, because each embraces the usual caricatures of self-interest; each assumes that where unchecked egoism rules, there is ruin. Yet in the political realm, have leaders no rational self-interest in pledging to deliver good government, and then doing so? Can that not command an electoral edge? If there can be rational private interest with good results, perhaps this could also hold for rational public interest. If so, political scientists can model not merely myopic, expedient politicians, but also prescient, principled statesmen.

Continue reading here.


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