self interest v the common good

Just watching panorama about devious ne'er-do-wells screwing money out of the property market and it occurred to me that these people are actively engaged in wrecking society but they don't care because they think it won't affect them. Take the money and run, possibly to Panama. But we're all living in the world together and if civilization breaks down then it breaks down for everybody.

The problem is that human beings tend to act for short term self interest rather than the long term interest of society as a whole. This has been illustrated by the recent run on Northern Rock. Lots of investors decided that it was in their best interests to take their money out. This led to a run on the bank and all the remaining investors lost out. If all the investors had remained calm and acted in the interests of the bank as a whole there would have been no run and everything would have continued as normal.

For the investors as a whole it is best to act for the good of all - but for the individual it's better to act selfishly and to do it as soon as possible.

Extrapolate that across every aspect of society and you have the modern world - starting to crumble at the edges. An awful lot of people wanting to fix the breakdown of society are trying to appeal to people to do the right thing and act in the best interests of everybody - but this is ultimately doomed. People are always going to act in their own self interest even if it means their ultimate self destruction. People on mass just aren't that bright!

Getting people to use low energy ligthbulbs because it will save the planet is a non starter, but persuade them that it will save them money and they are more interested. The great thing is that 'doing the right thing' is one of the things that makes people happy. If we can demonstrate that good behaviour like eating a balanced diet and getting fresh air and exercise, will directly make them happier in the short term then maybe we have the tools to put society back together again.

At the moment we have an underlying philosophy that being rich and having lots of stuff will make you happy. So people lie and cheat their way to riches which don't provide them with the fulfillment that they had expected... And the only solution seems to be to get more stuff - why else does David Beckham still advertise perfume and stuff, surely he has enough money by now?


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