Self-Interest

I recall reading years ago a book in ethics that built an entire ethical system out of the notion of self-interest. This was not simply ego-centricity, not raw selfishness. It was self-interest properly understood: enlightened self-interest. If I ask not “what do I want here and now,” but “what will I want in a few day’s time” I begin to see what is in my true self-interest. I will denote the difference by putting caps on the notion of Self Interest properly understood.

On a mundane level, Self Interest translates into “I will scratch your back because there may come a time when I need you to scratch my back.” Thus, if your car breaks down and you need a ride to the garage I will take you there in spite of the fact that I was on my way to the Mall to buy the item I really wanted because it is on special this week and the sale ends today. I really want to go to the Mall, but I realize that it is in my Self Interest to help you out, because there may come a time when I need you to help me out. Conscience may enter into it, or it may not. It may simply be a matter of calculation. But the end result is that I do the right thing. Similarly, if you make me really angry and I want to smack you upside the head, I realize that if I walk away you will still be my friend and we can continue to have fun together. It’s in my Self Interest to swallow my anger and simply walk away and cool off.

A good citizen who is calculating his or her Self Interest will realize that they need to vet each candidate carefully, get out and vote, and continue to keep an eye on the voting habits of the candidates of choice in order to determine whether they deserve to be reelected. He or she will pay taxes because they realize that they will benefit the schools (whether they have kids in the schools or not) and help the state pay for road repair, support fire and police salaries, and keep up the public parks — all of which benefit me in the long run. (Even someone else’s kids will vote and act wisely in the future if they are well schooled, presumably.)  In a word, Self Interest requires taking the long view, considering the consequences of actions and asking the question: what will benefit me in the long term.

The owner of a factory who knows he can save big bucks by neglecting to put scrubbers on his factory’s chimneys takes the view of Self Interest and spends the money for the scrubbers because he realizes that this will improve air quality that benefits the health of those around him, including his employees, and himself and his family as well. Short-term profits are sacrificed for long-term benefits to a great many more people. And, in the end, these are the people that will continue to work for him and will buy his products. The long term always involves a sense that each of us is in a boat with others. It’s not just about me or you: it’s about all of us. What is good for each is good for all. It’s not rocket science, but it takes a bit of imagination and patience and a willingness to think before acting.

At the highest levels, of course, ethics demands that those who make the major decisions that indirectly affect us all require the perspective of Self Interest. It may be in my self-interest (small case) to cheat on my taxes and save a few bucks, put pressure on my political cronies to get them to vote my way, cut health care because it will benefit those few who support my candidacy, fail to fill vacant federal judgeships that stand in the way of my political objectives, or eliminate regulatory agencies because they interfere with profits. But if I step back and take the perspective of Self Interest I realize that paying my taxes, cooperating with my political cronies (whether I like them or not), promoting universal health care, promoting a strong and healthy judiciary, and funding regulatory agencies that protect us all are in my Self Interest: they are in the best interest of all and therefore of myself as well. When we all benefit each of us as individuals benefits as well.

This system is not the be-all and end-all of ethics, but anyone who seeks to follow the path will find that he or she ends up doing the right thing most of the time. It takes imagination and a willingness to ignore short-term desires for long-term benefits. But if each of us followed that path our democracy would be a stronger and healthier political system that does, in the end, help to promote  the Common  Good — which was always the goal of a republican system of government.

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The Capitalist Myth

As the wealthy accrue more and more power, the middle class disappears, and the number of poor and homeless increases there are those that still cling to the myth that we live in a capitalistic economy that rewards those with grit and determination. The poor are poor because they lack gumption: they are so by virtue of their unwillingness to work hard and achieve the success that is there for anyone who truly wants it. This is the old “Horatio Alger” fiction that went out with gas lights. But it lingers in the minds of the very wealthy who like to think they live in a free-enterprise system that has made it possible for them to have earned their wealth and position by virtue of their own intelligence, determination and will-power. Some have, of course, but a great many have simply been downright lucky.

In any event, the fiction that we live in an economy that can be described as “free-enterprise capitalism” is just that, a myth. Joseph Schumpeter wrote about it in the 1940s and he pointed out that even back then capitalism in this country was being slowly displaced by socialism (gasp!!). And that was at a time when the middle class had political clout and was a significant part of our economy and there was real competition among a wide variety of businesses.  Schumpeter put this notion forward in his remarkable book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy where he also pointed out that today’s politician is a professional whose only qualification for public office  (and only genuine concern) is that he is able to get himself (or herself) elected. Schumpeter also has a number of wonderfully pithy comments about classical political philosophy and the notions of the Common Good and the General Will — the latter of which he insists should more accurately be called the “manufactured will,” constructed by the media in general and advertising in particular. He has a rather low opinion of ordinary citizens and the effort they put into political involvement.

“The ordinary citizen musing over national affairs. . . is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, [on which] he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . .Thus the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his own real interest. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.”

But I digress. To support Schumpeter’s claim about the demise of capitalism, consider that capitalism had devolved to the point that private property — which John Locke and Adam Smith regarded as the cornerstone of capitalism — has disappeared. The banks now own our homes and we lease our cars; we buy things on credit and owe thousands of dollars to merchants as we continue to “buy” things we may never actually pay for and certainly cannot be said to own in any meaningful sense of that term. Consider also that the concept of “family,” another cornerstone of capitalist societies, has become radically altered as many couples do not get married or raise children and many who do get married end in divorce; in general the family has evaporated as the need for children disappeared with the agrarian society of years past which gradually morphed into a commodified culture in which both parents went to work and sent what children they had off to day care. Before farms became highly mechanized farmers needed a large number of children, accountants do not.  As Schumpeter says, many couples now apply a rationalized “utilitarian calculus” to the question of raising children and decide “Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?” Indeed. But bear in mind that both family and private property helped to define capitalism during the Victorian era when capitalism reached its apogee — and came under withering criticism by thinkers as diverse as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.

Further, open competition among businesses has become a thing of the past as well. It was safely laid to rest by F.D.R. in the 1930s, especially in his “New Deal” which included such acts as the National Industrial Recovery Act designed to end “cutthroat competition” within major industries. In any event, meaningful competition in business is a bit of a joke any more as the corporations have taken over and are busily running small businesses out the economic back door — an estimated 200,000 small businesses went under during the recent recession. With the collusion of obliging legislators, the corporations can withstand years of weak economic times; small businesses cannot. And on the agrarian front the private farms are being taken over by the corporations as well. It is calculated that more than 90% of the corn now produced in this country is produced on corporate farms. One might even argue that the corporations are writing the epitaph of the democratic process as well as the economic one as they continue to buy politicians and commandeer the political process.

In any event, it is time to admit that free-enterprise capitalism, if not Democracy, is a thing of the past. If we can agree that Socialism is an economic system in which the government owns the means of production, as Marx defined it, and we can agree that the corporations now own our government, we can perhaps conclude that our economic system is socialistic, in a peculiar sense of that term. And to coin an ugly term to describe our ugly political system, we have devolved from a Democratic Republic to become a corporatocracy. The notion that we are no longer a democracy may be debatable; the claim that free-enterprise capitalism is a fiction is not.