The first is that of truthfulness. There is no ethical justification for either economists or capitalists presenting distorted versions of the writings of dead authorities such as Adam Smith. There are academic conventions governing the paraphrasing of others’ writings, and an ethical scholar will follow those conventions. While new right economists and business rationalists are by no means the only parties who fail to acknowledge their selective cropping of works from such sources as Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”, the fact that such distortion is not uncommon among zealous reformers leads me to doubt that the “ethical dimension” has been uppermost in minds of the architects of our post-1984 reforms.
The second theme relates to the meaning of the concept of self-interest.
The most extreme sect who trace their ideas back to Adam Smith are the so-called “objectivist” followers of the late Ayn Rand. The most well-known promoter of objectivism in New Zealand is Lindsay Perigo, broadcaster and spiritual leader of the Libertarianz Party.
The objectivists create a dualism, whereby human nature is seen as either selfish or altruistic. Altruism as a strategy for human behaviour, plays the role of a straw man in objectivist thought. It is presented as unrealistic, naive, foolish, and socially counterproductive. Altruism, in that context, means making oneself worse off in order to make someone else better off. The objectivists support selfishness, both because it is seen as the only alternative to altruism, and because they interpret Smith’s invisible hand as being a general mechanism by which individual unconcern for social outcomes creates social harmony and economic efficiency.