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Faculty Publication Spotlight: Krzysztof Pelc's "Beyond Self Interest"

Krzysztof Pelc is a professor and William Dawson Scholar at McGill University’s Department of Political Science. His latest book, “Beyond Self Interest” came out in May 2022.

Krzysztof Pelc’s research examines the international political economy and he is interested by how design of rules can affect the odds of cooperation between states, and how some rules benefit some countries over others. His first book, “Making and Bending International Rules” (CUP, 2016), deals with international trade laws, political economy and international relations. 

Pelc was also the winner of the Financial Times 2021 essay prize on the occasion of the Political Economy Club’s bicentenary. Pelc occasionally writes fiction and was the 2019 winner of CBC’s Short Story Prize.

His latest book, “Beyond Self-Interest: Why the Market Rewards Those Who Reject It”, is a provocative retelling of the workings of self-interest in contemporary market society, which claims the world increasingly belongs to passionates, obsessives, and fanatics: those who do things for their own sake, rather than as means to other ends. Drawing on three centuries of thought about commercial society and the people living in it, Pelc’s book presents a richly researched account of the cycles of capitalism that does not naively suggest that we should reject the market.

We spoke to Professor Pelc about the importance of writing this book and what its contents mean for future study on economic markets.

Q: Your book was written with a broader, non-academic audience in mind. How would you describe your book to those readers? Why was it important for you to write this book for a broad audience?

The main insight of the book is that in modern market societies like ours, the pursuit of self-interest only gets you so far. Increasingly, the market rewards those who are, or appear to be, disinterested. So we get Silicon Valley entrepreneurs gushing about saving the world rather than their bottom-line. Job-seekers who claim to be driven by a sense of purpose more than a paycheck. And politicians who try hard to come off as “authentic”. What these founders, job-seekers, and political candidates recognize is that often, the best way of getting ahead is to be seen as not trying to get ahead.

My hope in reaching a broader audience is to convey how ubiquitous this little paradox is. Once you start looking, it has a way of cropping up everywhere. The best wedding toasts are those that sound impromptu. The way to impress your peers is to seem like you’re not trying to impress them. And the game of seduction in its various guises usually consists of concealing, rather than revealing the effort.

Q:How should people with little to no knowledge of economic and political thinkers approach their reading journey? What tips do you have for those readers?

I imagine all authors hope for the same in a reader, which is a willingness to have their beliefs thrown into question. This book tries to do that by challenging some common preconceptions. We often envision capitalism as a heartless system that is at odds with noble, non-instrumental human values like freedom, beauty, religion, and passion. What I suggest instead is that the market can’t get enough of these. They are what capitalism runs on. This is a system that has a knack for enlisting these noble values to its own effort, and using them to renew itself. Think of the explicitly anti-consumerist movement of the 1960s, which provided a language of individual liberation and self-expression that feeds the advertising industry to this day.

Q: British economic historian Robert Skidelsky said of your book, “It takes scholarly courage and knowledge to upend Adam Smith.” Was this a particular challenge you wanted to tackle in “Beyond Self-Interest”?

Adam Smith has this famous line: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Its lovely alliteration aside, I think that line no longer captures reality. In part, it’s because consumers in advanced economies increasingly care about things that are hard to verify: does the butcher source his meat as ethically as he says? Does the brewer treat her employees as well as she vowed? Does the baker use the organic ingredients she claims? Those things are difficult to know for sure, so instead we look for signs that these entrepreneurs are driven by something other than mere self-interest: a passion for their craft, a sense of vocation, a commitment to sustainability. And we’re willing to pay premium for it.

Q: What would you say to some who think that passion can be diluted or tainted by profit, even if it is not the intended outcome?

I think that’s exactly right. If being seen as driven by purpose rather than profit is a profitable move, then there will be many who try and fake it. But we, as the audience, are not defenseless. We continually get better at detecting underlying motives. The result is a type of arms race between posers and their audience, where everyone takes turns being one and then the other, as sellers and buyers, workers and employers, leaders and voters.

Companies that proclaim their high-minded interests a little too eagerly learn this at their expense. They’re denounced according to a color catalogue of corporate hypocrisy: greenwashing, bluewashing, purplewashing, or pinkwashing, all of which do far more harm than good to a company’s fortunes.

Q: Why was it necessary to write a book that “upends how we relate to capitalism”?

I do think the common view of capitalism is misguided. Capitalism is a highly effective tool, but it’s just that: a means to an end. The original thinkers of capitalism—Adam Smith among them—saw this clearly. Growth was never the goal, it was just a means of improving social welfare. Over time, economists lost sight of that distinction: economics has become a science of means, and it’s left any consideration of the ends to other fields, like philosophy.

I think that especially in moments of flux like the one we currently find ourselves in—perched between economic recession and climate catastrophe—it’s worth reminding ourselves of what our shared social goals are, and then rethinking the best means of achieving them.

Q: What feedback have you received so far from your readers, colleagues, friends?

The response to the book has been pretty wonderful: everyone seems to gravitate towards a different part of it, which I hope means that it’s able to speak to its different audiences. It’s been especially gratifying to hear from people who weren’t necessarily interested in politics and economics, but who’ve nonetheless been drawn to the book’s ideas.

Q: In your book, you argue that “the true idols of market society are those who deny their self-interest, or appear to do so” and that “disinterest pays—but only for those who appear truly disinterested.” What role does authenticity and sincerity play in this dynamic? Is there such a thing as “true disinterest”?

We are living through a period that is obsessed with authenticity. We want authentic food, authentic celebrities, authentic political leaders. And that can have some sinister outcomes. Consider how the discourse of authenticity has been central to the recent wave of populism that has overtaken Western democracies. Only the populist leader “says it like it is,” no matter the consequences. The willingness to speak without a filter becomes of greater importance than what is actually being said.

And yet, I do think that there is such a thing as true disinterest, and we have all encountered it: we know entrepreneurs who started a business out of genuine passion, and political leaders who are driven by their ideals, rather than a hunger for power. We also know how some of those people, once they meet with success, can lose sight of their original disinterested aims. We denounce that as “selling out,” which I spend a chapter of the book on.

Q: Your first book, “Making and Bending International Rules” (CUP, 2016), deals with international trade laws, political economy and international relations. Why did you choose to focus your second book on economics and capital markets?

The two books are connected by their central concern, which is the notion of credibility. In the first book, I asked whether the credibility of promises could survive the need to suspend those promises following unforeseen events, like civil wars or economic shocks. In this book, I’m claiming that in a market dominated by self-interest, the only truly believable actors are those who appear driven by something other than their self-interest. Both books come down to the same fundamental puzzle: how do we get others to believe us?

Q: This Fall semester, you will be teaching POLI 441 – International Political Economy: International Trade. What discussions or lines of inquiry do you anticipate from your students, in relation to the contents of “Beyond Self-Interest”?

I teach students that the fundamental commodity of global capitalism is trust. The world economy rests on having ways of trusting people whom we don’t know and will never meet. We have traditionally done this through a massive financial edifice: contracts, courts, notaries, rating agencies, insurance companies. “Beyond Self-Interest” points to an alternative that modern market societies are increasingly turning to. I’ve been teaching this class for eleven years, and I’m excited as ever to do it again this Fall.

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