Who Says Economists Are Selfish?

And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.

-Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 25.

That sentence is more important to understanding how markets work than most people realize. The ability to feel empathy is part of what makes us human. It is also what makes market economies possible.

Without empathy, killing the customer would be at least as common as serving him. Mutual exchange — trade — is an act of peace. That wouldn’t be possible without the human ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes and feel for them. After all, it’s a lot easier to hit someone and take their stuff. And yet few people do. Empathy is a big reason why.

Adam Smith was one perceptive guy. Others have filled in gaps in his thought, and proven him wrong on some details. That does not take away from the fact that he was as perceptive as any thinker in history.

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