The essay by Edward Glaeser to which Matt Kahn points is, in my view, astoundingly wrong-headed. And, as Glaeser notes but doesn’t reflect on, the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments would have agreed with me, and not with Glaeser. The fact that selfishness constrained by law and the market can generate socially useful outcomes doesn’t make selfishness, or the freedom to pursue selfish ends, good things in themselves.
But I would go quite a bit stronger than this. If you think about a well-functioning liberal society with a (constrained) market economy and political liberty, you’re relying on an awful lot of non-selfish behavior by people to make it work. One key issue here is corruption and the efficacy of the public sector. A wise republic needs to think about the incentives facing public officials and design structures accordingly. But at the end of the day, well-functioning public institutions all involve a certain esprit de corps and sense of obligation. It’s not a coincidence that the most market-oriented societies (the Anglophone and Nordic countries) are also the ones with the best-functioning public sectors. Another issue has to do with parenting and family more generally. For a liberal society to function over time parents need to adopt an attitude toward their children that I don’t think is well-captured by the idea of selfishness. But then again, you can’t have everything collapse into nepotism either.
The point is that a society actually governed by the dual pillars of self-interest and obedience to the law is very unlikely to come out as a liberal market economy. What you’d get is a cesspool of rent-seeking and shakedowns. And I think that to the extent that the USA has become a society willing to accept an ethic of “greed is good” this is the direction we’ve headed in.