Why does the New Yorker want me to stop trying to improve the world?

Two interesting articles over the past few weeks about the difficulty of intentional action to improve the world. (And yes, I’m aware that I’m relying on them too much for material, but some things just cry out for comment.)

Philip Gourevitch on humanitarian aid and conflict. Does the presence of an international humanitarian aid “industry” incentivize actors in a conflict to increase their level of brutality so as to garner international aid, which ultimately benefits both sides because of the avowed neutrality of such sides?

Adam Gopnik on a new biography of Adam Smith. I learned from Jeff Weintraub back in the day that Smith was more complicated than the invisible hand, but now I’m sorry I never read Smith’s other masterpiece, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” The way Smith tends to get interpreted is that the invisible hand of the market orients social outcomes in a positive direction without anyone actually trying to make that happen: pursue your individual self-interest, and through the operation of the market, social welfare will be improved.

The upshot of these two pieces seems to be, “be very, very careful, oh ye who would improve the world through intentional action.” But Gopnik’s piece adds useful nuance to the conventional view of Smith, who didn’t say the invisible hand would always lead to better outcomes (direct quote of Smith below, emphasis added):

“Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, not knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only is own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which has no part in his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

If we accept this point of view (which is still debatable), what surely needs figuring out is when intentional action to promote the common good is and is not preferable to the pursuit of self-interest. It’s this consideration of incentives, particularly political and military ones, that may be useful to the humanitarian aid groups that Gourevitch writes about.

Don’t stop trying to improve the world, just be very, very aware of what kinds of ripples the stone you drop into the pond may cause.


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