Media and culture tell us that altruism is a high virtue. Using our precious time, money, and energy to benefit others without expectation of return is encouraged and praised in our society. Conversely, our culture emphasizes that a transactional exchange of value supposedly cheapens our obligation to serve others’ interests above our own.
This leads to problems, because transactionality is part of human nature. We are collaborative entities as a species, but our individual survival instinct motivates us to get something out of each interaction. We are only offended by the idea that relationships are transactional because its public repudiation helps to control our behavior. By elevating altruism, our society controls our desires, our output, and our basest impulse to improve our standing. Ironically, the institutionalizing of altriusm leads to a welfare state that gives producers little incentive to create societal value.
Notice the concepts that are used to mask transactionality — “loyalty”,”faith”, “devotion”, “allegiance” — all describe one-sided interactions where a person is expected to provide value indefinitely without reciprocation. Companies expect your loyalty and but will fire you without a second thought if it helps their margins. Girlfriends want your faith and devotion, but are likely to dump you if something better comes along.
Just as a great country cannot sustain itself as a one-sided welfare state, your personal and professional relationships cannot persist if both parties are not bringing something to the table. The happiest people I know embrace this concept, while some of the most miserable fail over and over to realize this ultimate truth. People will assert some higher purpose as a reason for their devotion to a failing cause, all the while allowing others to stomp on their interests and subjugate their lives.
I am perhaps more preoccupied with optimizing my life than most, but periodically I try to ask myself whether each relationship is adding value to my life. And am I adding enough value to maintain a fair exchange? There is, of course, the issue of transaction costs. A girl who previously made you very happy may start misbehaving, or your dream job may evolve into something less desirable. Because of your prior investment it makes sense to attempt to change the circumstances before ending the interaction wholesale. Ultimately, though, most of us are leading the lives of our choosing. If we are being taken advantage of, it is because we are allowing it to happen.
Is this “cold” or “calculating”? Perhaps by the standards of our PC-obsessed nanny state. But I’d rather acknowledge human nature and make it work to my advantage than ignore it and allow other people to control my life. Provide me with value and I will do the same. Cease to do so, and we will end the interaction. It is better to be a mercenary than a pushover.
Read more: The Matrix Is Getting Pissed