We are often told that it is human nature to act primarily in our own self-interest. I tend to think that’s true (although there is an argument to be made about the influence of culture and socialization), and that efforts to construct altruistic or utopian societies that ignore human nature are doomed to go the way of the USSR.
That said, the old adage only takes us so far. We need to recognize that short and long-term self-interest aren’t necessarily the same; i.e., what policies and social structures are truly in our long-term self-interest? (It may be in my short-term interest to steal your money, but assuming a halfway decent police department, it probably is not in my long-term interest to do so, since a criminal record is rarely an asset.)
It may be that democracy just can’t work, since “long-term” in partisan politics generally means “the next election.” But leaving that particular argument for another day, recent events have reminded me of a conversation with a family member several years ago. This particular individual is wealthy; not only did he inherit quite a lot of money, but he himself has always done well. He has also always been a liberal Democrat and an advocate of a strong social safety net. During that conversation, I said something to him along the lines of “your politics seems contrary to your own self-interest,” and he immediately disagreed.
“Those who have a lot,” he said, “have an interest in keeping it–and security in one’s possessions depends upon the maintenance of a stable, law-abiding society. Stability, in turn, depends upon a general sense in society that everyone has opportunity, that the good fortune of the rich and powerful is a result of their efforts and abilities, and has not been achieved on the backs of the powerless. Resentment and too large a gap between the haves and have-nots more often than not leads to rioting and looting by those who have nothing to lose, and that is definitely not in my interest! Better to pay more taxes and work for a government that is concerned with social justice than to build high walls around my privileged neighborhood and hire personal security guards.”
As we watch the looting in London, as Washington continues to reward the rich with obscene amounts of corporate welfare while cutting services to the middle and working classes, it might be well to think about where self-interest really lies.