Invitation to a Dialogue: Does Selfishness Rule?

Is selfishness at the root of America’s political and economic problems?

As Kurt Andersen (“The Downside of Liberty,” Op-Ed, July 4) observed, worries about the relationship between individualism and selfishness are as old as the Republic itself. And in the 1820s, Alexis de Tocqueville voiced his concern that the extreme individualism of the new American democracy could, if not curbed, sap “the virtues of public life.”

Across a broad range of public policy concerns, the debate over the role of government and “entitlements” has been hijacked by those who appeal to the selfish instincts of voters. Just consider the opposition to expansion of health insurance, regulation of the financial markets, increasing taxes on the very wealthy or spending to stimulate the economy.

Appeals to selfishness and its next of kin — envy — have been used to justify the gutting of pensions and benefits to public employees. Why should they enjoy benefits that you don’t have? Efforts to provide relief to homeowners facing foreclosures and college graduates mired in debt have been stymied by the mantra, Why should my tax dollars be used to help someone who was less frugal than I was?

Although actions rooted in selfishness may provide some short-term benefits to those who strive to maintain their relative advantages, they are destructive to society as a whole. As each generation’s winners institutionalize their advantages, the opportunities for those who are left behind become increasingly fewer. Economic inequality and powerlessness become the norms.

In the 1950s John Kenneth Galbraith bemoaned the existence of “private affluence and public squalor.” This disparity has only grown worse in the past 60 years.

The prognosis for a political culture in which citizens have been conditioned to think only in terms of “me” is grim since democracy requires, for its continued vitality, an understanding that we are all in this together.

Boston, July 9, 2012

Nature religions of indigenous cultures promotes a narrative about the oneness with the natural world and seeking harmony with it and with each other.  The gods were really anthropic projections onto the natural world.  The shaman had very limited power, as did chiefs, where their positions rested with the consent with the community.  This began to change about 8000 years ago.  The earliest towns were focused on temples, which enforced the idea of larger gods that acted as “the boss.”  Parallel to this was the emergence of agriculture which required executors who managed these early operations.  The power of the chief and priest expanded beyond the simple consent of a tribe into that of rulership.  The rest of our history has been about consolidating that power further.  On the religious front gods ultimately became God with ultimate power over everything, and with that grew up a priestly and entitled political class which had great powers over societies.  Except for some transient occasions with democracies and republics, largely human history has seen on average ever greater tightening of centralized control.  Orwell was clairvoyant enough to see how the veneer of democracy would be peeled away and the western world would be converted into a new form of autocratic despotism.  It is happening like clockwork.

In this process there has been considerable selfishness.  Those who control these socio-economic domains, whether feudal estates or large empires, were intensely selfish people.  Today things are no exception, and financial and corporate power has no internal checks and balances, and it is becoming the real power behind governments of nations.  These people are guided by unbounded greed and an appetite for ever more than they already have.

In spite of her obvious sociopathic tendencies, Ayn Rand did in some way codify all of this in an honest manner.  She spelled out the role of the economic meister, which ultimately meant that any sense of empathy or charity towards the less fortunate was anathema to the quest for ever greater wealth and power.  In her Atlas Shrugged she has a hero who was a pirate character who stole from the poor and gave to the rich; that about says it all.  Other systems often use values of selflessness as ways of exploiting those gullible enough to sacrifice themselves.  The epistles of St. Paul are perfect examples of this, for while they extol the virtue of being selfless in Christ, at one in love with your brethren and so forth, it also spells out the formula for complete control of the system.  Communism does something similar, where ideals of universal brotherhood are used to maintain absolute power.  Ayn Rand might be argued to at least remove the duplicity in these systems.  In that way we can at least see the naked horror of these types of systems in her novels and her presumed morality. LC


About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence.
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