Economics of Mimetic Desire

The ideas that form the basis for the free market economy—ideas like “freedom” and “justice”—are at the heart of the market’s sacred aura. And few ideas have shaped Western economies like the notion of “enlightened self-interest.”

Enlightened self-interest is the idea that people will naturally gravitate toward activities that further the interests of others in order to indirectly benefit themselves. For instance, people donate to the teachers union because they know the union will ultimately defend their rights in contract negotiations. They sell goods that other people want but which will also make them profit. Everyone wins.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner,” wrote Adam Smith, “but from their regard to their own interest.” An invisible hand—the unseen forces that guide the market—inevitably fulfill the best interests of society when people are free to act as they wish.

But the force that Adam Smith never mentioned explicitly—the real invisible hand that we’ve been exploring throughout this book—is mimetic desire. As we’ve seen, people locked in a mimetic rivalry may indeed act out of self-interest; but they can also act for the purpose of self-destruction. Modern economics has little to say about this.

Rene Girard sees Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella Notes from the Underground as a devastating take down of the idea of enlightened self-interest. The main character, a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg, is a paragon of selfishness. He has rejected conventional morality and mocks the philosophies of utilitarianism and pragmatism popular at the time. 

“I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man,” says the nameless protagonist. “I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” He explains why he refuses to see a doctor: spite. “I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else,” he says.

He announces to the reader that he will be a sign of contradiction to the prevailing philosophies of the day—both the doctrine of laissez faire capitalism, which lacks any rules and regulations, and the idea of enlightened self-interest.

In the second half of the book, the underground man causes carnage and misery to everyone he encounters and to himself. “The underground hero is as selfish as he can possibly be, and this is precisely where his trouble lies: he cannot be sufficiently selfish,” writes Girard. “His intense mimetic desire compels him to gravitate around human obstacles of the pettiest kind.”

His obsession with his rivals becomes the axis around which his entire world turns. The underground man ends up in even worse shape than we find him. By the end, he is a caricature.

The story reveals the illusory wall between the Self and Others. When the underground man intends to be as selfish as he can possibly be, he is as mimetic as ever. 

He replaces enlightened self-interest with unenlightened self-enslavement.

At first, mimetic desire can rest on enlightened self-interest. But mimetic rivalry very often leads to self-destruction because the growing obsession to desire what others desire amounts to an increasingly strong concern with oneself, which eventually enslaves the person. Enlightened self-interest is not sustainable in the context where mimetic desire exists.