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.

Regulations

We live in a time of ferocious de-regulation as the Republican majority in both houses of government in the United States is in positive tizzy to rid the country of those nasty regulations that have been interfering with the increase of profits for the very few. But there are regulations and there are regulations. Some are in the spirit of “mercantilism” that is intended to increase a nation’s wealth by regulating all of the nation’s commercial interests. Those are the regulations people like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke had in mind when they argued for a system of “free enterprise” that would increase human liberty and contribute to the common good. That was in the eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment.

But there are regulations today that are designed to protect citizens from the dangers following upon the blind pursuit of profit that threaten the health and well-being of us all. Smith fought against “mercantilism” because the government at that time was intent on decreasing wages and expanding the pool of needy workers that would then be available to the wealthy who owned the factories. Smith argued vociferously for raising the wages of the working classes. The attacks of Karl Marx were also against the same propertied class in the name of the “workers of the world.” Today’s regulations that are designed to protect citizens from corporate abuse, not to mention the destruction of the planet that sustains us all, are of a different order and would most certainly not have been opposed by Adam Smith. One wonders about Edmund Burke who, while a student of Adam Smith, was also a more ferocious defender of the rights of the propertied classes —  though he had some rough words for the “sophists, economists, and calculators” who pervert the true principles of economy by promoting policies that were inimical to the welfare of the country.

In any event, those who might refer to Smith or to Burke in pursuing the elimination of regulations might want to reflect on the intention of the two thinkers., Both were concerned about the liberty of all citizens, though Smith was primarily concerned about the liberty of the ordinary workers who were busily being exploited in his day by the mercantile classes, the owners of the means of production, as Marx would have it a century later. Smith was a compassionate thinker, a pillar of the British Enlightenment and firmly at the center of the Scottish Moral Sense School of philosophy who was convinced that men would, left to themselves, do the right thing. His famous comment, often invoked in defense of free-enterprise capitalism should be taken in the context of his entire thesis and in his earlier work in moral philosophy. When he says that

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest”

we must pause and reflect that this is the man who regards human sympathy and benevolence as fundamental traits in the human soul. The pursuit of self-interest, in Smith’s view, would not conflict with benevolence or the well-being of others, because we are all, Smith thought, concerned not only about our own good but also the good of our fellow human beings. By pursuing self-interest we are at the same time pursuing the best interest of others. There is no conflict, in Smith’s view, because all humans want all other humans to be happy and well off. All, that is, but those who own the factories that employ humans at starvation levels. Smith fought hard to demand that the government, if it interfere at all, fund public education and work to promote policies that raise the wages of the working men and women rather than to reduce them as many would do in his name today. The mercantile system that Smith criticized sought to direct the economy in the interests of national wealth and power, not in the direction of the ordinary worker. Thus, when he advocates free enterprise it was because he was convinced that left to themselves workers would care for one another and help the economy at the same time. He was convinced, for example, that educating the workers and raising their wages would increase productivity, improve worker morale, and increase profits, while at the same time making it possible for the workers to live fuller, richer lives. This is the free-enterprise system he advocated.

Smith would not have fought against the sorts of regulations that protect citizens today against the abuses of the large corporations that would poison the air and water. Nor would he defend the supposed “right” of mega-corporations to be deregulated in the name of increased profits. Certainly not if those actions were undertaken at the cost of increasing poverty for increasing numbers of men and women and direct threats to their health and the preservation of the planet on which we all depend, which they most assuredly are. Smith would never condone, for example, the sort of attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency we have seen of late. So those who invoke his name in defense of their attacks on regulations might to do well to actually read Adam Smith’s book and pause to reflect on the long-term costs of their short-term thinking.  It’s not all about profits. It’s all about the common good. It was in Smith’s time and it still is in our’s.

Ignorance Is Bliss?

I sometimes I wish I could join the ranks of the ignorant, because I am told that ignorance is bliss — and I would believe it. I would also believe:

• that global warming is a fiction invented by liberal (and therefore “wrong-headed”) scientists and our planet is not under threat by greedy capitalists.

• that elected officials are smarter than I and are only concerned about the common good. And mine.

• that the armed forces are comprised of dedicated young men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting my freedom — and not the interests of Big Oil.

• that Big Oil is devoted to developing better and cheaper ways to make my life more comfortable, and not, as some insist, to increasing their already massive profits.

• that the continued use of torture and drones will eventually win the war on terror — and not simply label this country as morally bankrupt and increase by tenfold the numbers of would-be terrorists who hate me and my country (and everything we stand for).

• that Wall Street provides the paradigm of success by which we should all guide our lives.

• that corporate CEOs are devoted to improving their company’s products and the lot of their employees rather than cutting corners and pocketing more than 400 times what the folks who work for them make.

• that Christmas was about “Peace on Earth” and not materialism and profits for retailers.

• that the money the very wealthy spend backing selected politicians will produce the best and brightest leaders in Congress who will transcend party loyalties and work together for the common good.

• that our democracy is a government of, by, and for the people and not of, by, and for the few who control the vast majority of wealth in this country.

• that the more people who carry guns the safer the world would be.

• that the players on my favorite sports teams aren’t taking PEDs and that the Mafia never gets involved in fixing sporting events — at any level.

• that everything I hear and see on Fox News is the truth.

As I say, I wish I could believe these things because I suspect I would be more at peace and better able to sleep soundly at night, confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have it). But then I would be delusional, and I don’t think I want to be that. So I will continue to read and think and attempt to make sense of the little I know while I try to be as realistic as possible about the things going on around me — bearing in mind the words of the very wise Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The Spirit of Compromise

The son of my blog buddy BTG recently graduated from High Point University in North Carolina. The commencement address was delivered by Colin Powell. (This beats the recent commencement speaker at my alma mater who was Michael Wilbon — one of the talking heads on ESPN.)  In any event, Powell had some wise words to share with the graduates and he stressed, among other things, the need for the young people sitting before him to get involved and learn the art of compromise. He reminded the students that the founding of this country was made possible only because of the willingness of those remarkable men to compromise. Somehow, that spirit of compromise has died.

Reflection leads us to a number of possibilities as to why this has happened. To begin with the obvious, the country is considerably larger and the political process much more complex than it was in the eighteenth century. When the founders were trying to figure how to escape from the stifling embrace of England, they had a common purpose. To be sure, there were divided loyalties, since many feared the wrath of the most powerful nation on earth — and wanted its continued protection. Bear in mind that the Spanish and French had been on the continent for years before the Pilgrims landed and the New England colonies got organized. Together with the native people, they were viewed as a constant threat. So a number of the founders simply were willing to put up with a few minor inconveniences, such as taxation without representation, in order to have the assurance that the English army and navy was there to protect them. But thanks to the foolishness of the British in Boston, the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson, and the persuasive powers of people like John Adams, the representatives gathered in Philadelphia were willing to compromise and declare independence from England. Without a willingness to compromise, there could have been no Declaration of Independence.

But the notion of compromise today is equated in the minds of a great many people with “capitulation,” the willingness to sell out, a form of cowardice. Loyalty in the political arena is not to an idea, as it was in 1776, it is to the political party (which did not exist in 1776) and to the corporate interests that support the party and determines reelection or failure in political office. Things have changed considerably, and it it’s not only about the increased size of the country, it’s more about what really matters. To the colonial founders, what mattered was their independence and ability to determine their own future without the outside influence of a power across the sea that really took little interest in their future, other than to be sure of a steady supply of tobacco and cotton and continued income from taxes paid. Today, there is no idea, except the idea of continuing in a cushy office (hey, it beats real work!) with the assurance of great wealth after retirement, either as a lobbyist for one of the corporations, or simply from the wise investment of funds made available during the term in office.

Clearly, Colin Powell was addressing the current inability of the sitting congress to compromise and see the larger canvas — the national interest that was once referred to as “The Common Good.” He knows whereof he speaks. If the reasons for this inability are not clear, then it is because the person who fails to see them simply doesn’t want to look. It is self-interest, pure and simple, the very thing the Greeks knew would eventually destroy any political body no matter how strong and well conceived it might happen to be. I suspect Colin Powell knows that. He has something that so many others in the public eye seem to lack: clear vision and the ability to make sacrifices that are necessary in order to guarantee that the nation he loves and has dedicated his life to does not take the wrong turn. His were words of wisdom, and one can only hope that they are heard not only by those graduates sitting in North Carolina, but by all who have ears, and especially those in power who determine the future of this country.

Pay The Piper

I am reluctant to use worn-out phrases like the one in today’s title. But I have used this one before and I want to expand on the ideas that lie behind it, especially as they relate to today’s educational plight.

When I first started college teaching back in the Dark Ages I taught logic at the University of Rhode Island. One of my tasks was to go from Kingston to Providence once a week to teach an adult extension course in logic to hard-working adults who were trying to get a college degree after work. On the way I picked up one of the students who was the Chief of the Jamestown Police and we had some interesting talks driving to Providence and back. He complained a number of times about the format of the New England Town Meetings where citizens met on a fairly regular basis and discussed and voted on the pressing issues of the day. His frustration usually centered around the fact that the people wanted such things as improved police and fire protection but they didn’t want to raise their taxes. In a word, they wanted to hear the tune the piper played, but they didn’t want to pay him.

We still do that on both a state and a national scale, don’t we? We want something for nothing: we want a good educational system but we don’t want to have to pay for it. In Wisconsin recently the citizens of that great state attempted to break up public employee unions on the grounds that it will save them tax money and at the same time they are outspoken in their criticism of the job the public employees do — especially the teachers. Give me a break! Are we really that stupid?

I think it was Churchill who said Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others. I gather that he was poking gentle fun at the folks who run around like the creatures in the caucus race in Wonderland trying to figure out how to make things work; Churchill knew that the process, while flawed, is the best humans have come up with. Plato preferred philosopher Kings, but there aren’t many of them around these days. And it’s not clear philosophers would make very good kings anyway!

But it is the case that a well-educated citizenry is of central importance to any democratic system. If the people are not well informed, how can they make intelligent choices? George Eliot dealt with this question in her brilliant novel Felix Holt, Radical at a time when England was struggling with the issue of extending suffrage. How can we expect people who know very little about the world around them, who are daily forced to work with their hands instead of their heads, to make informed decisions? Felix wrestles with this question throughout the novel, and it is a very important question. Our founding fathers wrestled with it as well and I am not sure we have answered it yet.

We had better figure out how to make it work, however, or future historians will conclude that our democracy was a failed experiment. Ours is not a pure democracy, of course, but it requires enlightened, well-educated legislators and leaders — and a citizenry educated well enough to separate the fraud from the friend. As stated, in any democracy the entire experiment hinges on an educated citizenry. Thomas Jefferson knew this, of course, which is why he founded the University of Virginia. If people are unwilling to spend money to have their young well enough educated to become informed voters in a democratic nation then the experiment will indeed have failed. We really must pay the piper.