Bastiat on Harnessing the Motive Force

This inner, indestructible, universal motive force that resides in every individual and makes of him an active being, this tendency of every man to seek happiness and to shun misery, this product, this effect, this necessary complement of sensibility, without which the latter would be merely a meaningless burden, this primordial phenomenon which is the origin of all human action, this attracting and repelling force which we have called the mainspring of the social machine, has been disparaged by most social philosophers and political theorists; and this is certainly one of the strangest aberrations to be found in the annals of science.

It is true that self-interest is the cause of all the evils, as well as all the benefits, that can fall to the lot of man. This cannot fail to be the case, since self-interest determines all our actions. Certain political theorists, seeing this, have conceived of no better way to cut off evil at its roots than to stifle self-interest. But, since by this act they would also destroy the very motive force of our activity, they thought it best to endow us with a different motive force: devotion and self-sacrifice. They hoped that henceforth all social transactions and arrangements would be carried out, at their bidding, on the principle of self-abnegation. People are no longer to seek their own good but others'; the admonitions of pain and pleasure are no longer to count for anything, any more than the punishments and rewards of responsibility. All the laws of nature are to be overturned; the spirit of self-sacrifice is to take the place of the instinct of self-preservation; in a word, no one is ever to consider his own personality except to hasten to sacrifice it to the common good. It is from this complete transformation of the human heart that certain political theorists, who believe themselves to be very religious, expect the coming of perfect social harmony. They forget to tell us how they propose to carry out the indispensable preliminary, the transformation of the human heart.

If they are mad enough to undertake it, they will certainly not be strong enough to achieve it. Do they desire the proof? Let them try the experiment on themselves; let them try to stifle self-interest in their own hearts so that it is no longer evidenced in the most ordinary acts of their lives. They will not be long in admitting their own inability to do so. How, then, do they presume to impose upon all men, without exception, a doctrine to which they themselves cannot submit?

— Frederic Bastiat, “The Motive Force of Society

While I disagree that people naturally pursue what they believe to be their self-interest, the lesson I get from this Bastiat quote is that rather than suppressing people’s motivations, a more reliable and productive means of promoting community well-being is to harness that self-interest, even if I may not agree with the desired proximate motivations. If this self-interest is turned to satisfying the needs of others, which is what takes place under the conditions of free association, the benefit of one brings a corresponding benefit to the other. If that is the case, then contrary to being a condition of every Man for himself, therefore, a genuine market economy’s more appropriate slogan would be “All for one, and one for all.”

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