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Philip Wicksteed on “non-tuism” in economic relations (1910)

The English philosopher and economist Philip H. Wicksteed (1844-1927) argues that what motivates an economic relation between two individuals is not pure “egoism” on the part of the participants but what he terms its “non-tuism” or impersonal aspects:

There is surely nothing degrading or revolting to our higher sense in this fact of our mutually furthering each other’s purposes because we are interested in our own. There is no taint or presumption of selfishness in the matter at all. The economic nexus indefinitely expands our freedom of combination and movement; for it enables us to form one set of groups linked by cohesion of faculties and resources, and another set of groups linked by community of purpose, without having to find the “double coincidence” which would otherwise be necessary. This economy and liberty will be equally valued by altruistic and by egoistic groups or individuals, and it would be just as true, and just as false, to say that the business motive ignores egoistic as to say that it ignores altruistic impulses. The specific characteristic of an economic relation is not its “egoism,” but its “non-tuism.”

There is surely nothing degrading or revolting to our higher sense in this fact of our mutually furthering each other’s purposes because we are interested in our own. There is no taint or presumption of selfishness in the matter at all. The economic nexus indefinitely expands our freedom of combination and movement; for it enables us to form one set of groups linked by cohesion of faculties and resources, and another set of groups linked by community of purpose, without having to find the “double coincidence” which would otherwise be necessary. This economy and liberty will be equally valued by altruistic and by egoistic groups or individuals, and it would be just as true, and just as false, to say that the business motive ignores egoistic as to say that it ignores altruistic impulses. The specific characteristic of an economic relation is not its “egoism,” but its “non-tuism.”

It may be urged, however, that since, as a rule, “ego” and “tu” fill the whole canvas, not only to the spectator, but to the actors also; that is to say, since a man, when he is doing business, is generally only thinking of his own bargain, and how to deal with his correspondent, and not of any one else at all, the exclusion of “tu” is tantamount to the solitary survival of “ego.” So that, after all, “altruism” has no place in business, and “non-tuism” is equivalent to “egoism.” And, indeed, it may be true enough that, as a rule, the average man of business is not likely to be thinking of any “others” at all in the act of bargaining, but even so the term “egoism” is misapplied, for neither is he thinking of himself! He is thinking of the matter in hand, the bargain or the transaction, much as a man thinks of the next move in a game of chess or of how to unravel the construction of a sentence in the Greek text he is reading. He wants to make a good bargain or do a good piece of business, and he is directly thinking of nothing else. All manner of considerations of loyalty, of humanity, of reputation, and so forth, are no doubt present to his mind in solution, so to speak, as restraining influences; and they may easily be precipitated and emerge into consciousness at any moment of vacillation or reflection; but in making his bargain the business man is not usually thinking of these things, and when he thinks of them they act chiefly as restraints. Neither is he thinking of the ultimate purposes to which he will apply the resources that he gains. He is not thinking either of missions to the heathen or of famine funds, or of his pew rent, or of his political association. But neither is he thinking of his wife and family, nor yet of himself and the champagne suppers he may enjoy with his bachelor friends, nor of a season ticket for concerts, nor of opportunities for increasing his knowledge of Chinese or mathematics, nor of free expenditure during his next holiday on the Continent, nor of a week at Monte Carlo, nor of anything else whatever except his bargain. He is exactly in the position of a man who is playing a game of chess or cricket. He is considering nothing except his game. It would be absurd to call a man selfish for protecting his king in a game of chess, or to say that he was actuated by purely egoistic motives in so doing. It would be equally absurd to call a cricketer selfish for protecting his wicket, or to say that in making runs he was actuated by egoistic motives qualified by a secondary concern for his eleven. The fact is that he has no conscious motive whatever, and is wholly intent on the complex feat of taking the ball. If you want to know whether he is selfish or unselfish you must consider the whole organisation of his life, the place which chess-playing or cricket takes in it, and the alternatives which they open or close. At the moment the categories of egoism and altruism are irrelevant.

And yet this analogy of the game will further explain the obstinacy with which the phrase and the idea reassert themselves, that, in matters of business, a man is solely actuated by the desire for “his own advantage.” It is just because we look upon two men engaged in driving a hard bargain (a very small part of the life of a man of business by the way) much as we look upon two men who are playing a game. Each is intent upon victory, that is, upon raising his score against the other’s, and in this sense the man who has driven a close or a hard bargain is certainly intent on securing an advantage, and we call it “his” advantage, because he is struggling to gain it, though it may in the final instance be the advantage of a client or a ward in which he has either an indirect share only or no share at all. Once more, then, if ego and tu are engaged in any transaction, whether egoism or altruism furnishes my inspiring motive, or whether my thoughts at the moment are wholly impersonal, the economic nature of the action on my side remains undisturbed. It is only when tuism to some degree actuates my conduct that it ceases to be wholly economic. It is idle, therefore, to consider “egoism” as a characteristic mark of the economic life.

About this Quotation:

Wicksteed’s argument that when we engage in trade we are “mutually furthering each other’s purposes because we are interested in our own” builds upon Adam Smith’s insight that social gains are to be had when individuals pursue their own selfish interests (his “invisible hand” argument). He goes further in arguing that the reasons people engage in trade with each other is a complex mixture of selfish motives (“egoism” - where “ego” equals “I” and thus means putting one’s own interest first), cooperation with others, and game playing. He rejects the idea that critics of the market make that economic relations should be based more on “tuism” (where “tu” means “you”, i.e. another person, whose interests come first). Since neither “egoism” nor “tuism” are sufficient to understand why people trade with each other, he invents the word ”non-tuism” by which he means that much economic activity is in fact “impersonal” but at the same time mutually and socially beneficial. As a side note, it is interesting and amusing to see the examples this Edwardian gentleman scholar uses to make his case: playing a game of chess, translating a Greek text, playing cricket, sending missionaries to the “heathen” parts of the world, having champagne suppers with his batchelor friends, or holidaying at Monte Carlo.

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