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Small Groups

Small-group motives sometimes appear in places where large-group motives would seem more appropriate. For example, in discussing the structure of the Japanese corporation, a manager states:

"The most important path to quality is that employees feel that they are of one family, playing an important role in the company....In Japan, an employee tries to work his lifetime with the company he chooses. So he does not put much importance in his personal interests....In Japan, they say, 'Job first, family life comes second.'"1

Nevertheless, the distinction between small group-motives and large-group motives suggests that it may be difficult to organize large groups on any other basis than on self-interest. This distinction tells us that it is not enough to convert people from selfishness to altruism, but that the altruism they are converted to must be a generalized altruism. People must care as much about strangers as they care about themselves, their families, and their friends.

The Soviet Union had a hero who illustrates the sort of change the transformation requires. Pavlik Morozov turned his father over to authorities in 1932 as an enemy of the people. According to the story, which may be mostly propaganda, his father, the mayor of Garasimovka, gave or sold safe conduct passes to peasants fleeing famine. When thirteen-year-old Pavlik learned of his father's crimes and informed the secret police, his father was executed. His uncle and grandfather then revealed their reactionary natures when they retaliated by killing him. Pavlik became a martyr for the glory of the Soviet state and, as a hero, many schools and youth groups bore his name. For a nation to be organized not on self-interest but on "selfless" motives, people must be like Pavlik. They must consider the interests of anonymous strangers to be at least as important as their own interests and the interests of their family and friends.

Economists have been content to take goals as given and have not tried to develop theories of goal formation. This attitude reflects the hypothesis that it is impossible on a large scale to change people so that they act on the basis of generalized altruism. Not everyone accepts this hypothesis. Most Marxist governments, governments that invoked the name of Karl Marx as a justification of their policies, believed or professed to believe that man could be transformed so that he no longer pursued his own selfish interests but strove only for the welfare of the group. Some of these governments tried to refute the economists' hypothesis by transforming their citizens. China's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and Cambodia's bloodbath under the Khmer Rouge are dramatic examples of attempts to make this transformation. Both failed disastrously. If, in the future, someone does refute this hypothesis, it will cause a revolution in economics and greatly diminish the importance of what it has to say.

Religion has often attempted to limit the role of self-interest. For example, Christianity historically has been distrustful of self-interest; there are no saints who exemplify virtuous self-interest. Most of the secular religions of the last two centuries, such as Marxism, nationalism, and environmentalism, have also tried to convert people to be less self-interested. Robert Nelson has even suggested that economics itself can be seen as a secular religion that seeks to limit self-interest.2 For a society to prosper, argues Nelson, self-interest must be confined to the market and kept out of other areas of society, especially the government. When government is dominated by self-interest, people use it as a way to redistribute wealth to themselves, and if too much of a society's effort goes into trying to get ahead by taking from others rather than producing for others, economic stagnation and poverty result. Nelson argues that economists have implicitly understood the need for an elite group of experts (sometimes economists) who can rise above self-interest if a market system is to function properly.

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1The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 1983, p. 14.

2 Robert H. Nelson, Economics as Religion: from Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond.. (Pennsylvania University Press, 2001).

Copyright Robert Schenk