Thursday, April 30, 2009

Self-interest

I found an amusing story, which I am stealing shamelessly from Jay Nordlinger's column at National Review:
He’s on MacNeil-Lehrer (I believe) with some woman from the education establishment (what Bill Bennett used to call “the Blob”). Gramm says, “My educational policies are based on the fact that I care more about my children than you do.” The woman says, “No, you don’t.” Gramm says, “Okay: What are their names?”
This pretty much sums up my philosophy of government (and also of history): people are self-interested. If you are a cynic, you might say they are selfish. If you are a Christian (which I am), you might say that man is fallen and inherently sinful. However you express it, the point is the same: people are going to do what is best for them. If you establish any social institutions on the expectation that people are going to be altruistic, you are heading for disaster.

Moreover, as the Gramm interview implies, self-interest is not necessarily a bad thing. Not only are people inclined to do what is in their best interests; they also happen to be in the best position to judge their own interests. This is not only because they know what they want, but also because they know their own situation intimately, whereas other people and institutions can only understand them vaguely, usually by classifying them into a series of crude categories.

Obviously, I am not saying that everyone at all times will do what is best for them. People do self-destructive things all the time; but at least they can take responsibility for their actions, and make their decisions from an informed perspective. There is something noble in failing as long as one tries, and everyone is certainly trying for fulfillment. There is nothing noble in being bludgeoned into failure by government (or any other institution, or individual).

Also, I am not saying that no one is ever altruistic. Suicide bombers voluntarily give their own lives in a cause larger than themselves (although their families also profit greatly); the Japanese produced kamikaze pilots and soldiers who preferred death to surrender in WWII; and their are people who give themselves for far nobler causes. But these are rare cases. Willingness to die for one's country, one's faith, or one's family is deeply instilled in most cultures, but only when they are threatened. While alive, most of these same people would not hesitate to take more for themselves at the expense of others.

All attempts to wish away self-interest are therefore doomed to failure. They will never work for the bulk of society, and never in normal peacetime conditions. The "New Soviet Man" was just the old human oppressed by the Soviet state. "Make Love, Not War" works as long as there is nothing to fight about, but hippies proved willing to resort to violence to destroy institutions that they found oppressive. At least "Why can't we all just get along?" has the excuse of being an exasperated plea rather than a political program. We can't get along because there are limited resources (economic and social (e.g., prestige)) to go around, and people can't agree on how to divide them up.

Another hopeless slogan that falls into this category is the promise by our current president to be "post-partisan." How exactly is that to be achieved? By giving in to his opponents on every issue? Obviously not, based on his actions. By convincing his opponents of the justice of his positions? Again, no; nor could anyone really promise this. Frankly, I have no idea what Obama had in mind, but I feel certain that it is one of those empty political phrases intended to attract votes rather than change political realities.


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