The quest for virtue versus self-interest

It seems that one of Greek society’s most steadfast demands is for some virtue in public administration. We would like to have virtuous politicians, honorable civil servants, even selfless voters. But this is a romantic idea. We seem to hope to create a «community of angels» in which citizens vote on the basis of the broader common good, storekeepers stop profiteering and traders do not rip off the tax office. The truth is that we have invested a lot in the morality of others these past few years and we have yet to see any return on this investment. We deplore tax evasion but, instead of disappearing, the scourge continues to grow. We fight entangled interests but these interests always find new, creative ways to flourish. This approach evidently is not working. Perhaps the time has come to try the much-maligned option of self-interest. The market – although defamed in our country – has proved to be the most successful system in the history of mankind precisely because its players are not driven by some moral stance but by the desire to satisfy their own self-interests. The trader does not sell so that he can «go to heaven» and the consumer does not buy in order to «create a better society.» They exchange goods based on the most prosaic of motives: The supply and demand of goods are basically two conflicting interests which balance each other out once these interests have been satisfied. And perhaps herein lies the answer to our current problems. Maybe in demanding virtue we have been expecting too much? Instead of dreaming about traders who do not gouge, perhaps we should become consumers who adopt similar practices – namely, scouring the market for the best deals. Instead of fantasizing about an ideal and selfless community, perhaps we should allow people’s different self-interests to battle it out. This strategy might not lead to the creation of heaven on earth but it is very likely to solve some of our current problems.