The Politics of Self-Interest

It is time that we Americans begin to divine the difference between “enlightened self-interest” and “self-interested enlightenment.” The former demands that we use care in not allowing our self-interest to overwhelm our public duty as citizens. The latter gives us license to take all we can from the system, from the government, from our fellow man without a thought to the consequences.

When you refuse to serve the greater good by sacrificing some benefit to yourself, you take the first step down the pathway to becoming a reactionary. When you try to expunge self-interest in the name of enlightenment, you take the fist step down the pathway to becoming a radical.

The correct path is the middle route, the self-interest moderated by a developed sense of duty to the public good.

Now, which are we teaching our children?

Hung Up on Size

In a thoughtful Wall Street Journal editorial, Michael Barone condemns as misguided what he perceives liberal nostalgia for World War II, an era where big government accomplished historic things and Keynesian spending yanked the nation out of the Depression. He takes liberals to task for failing to realize that “Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor” turn ordinary people into faceless cogs in a very large machine.

Barone is not wrong. Any large institution tends to eat away at individualism, and the larger governments, corporations, and unions get, the more the welfare of the individual is subsumed by the need to attend the flock. (To his list of “Bigs” I would add Big Education, Big Science, and even Big Church.)

Ironically, Barone misses a point. Faced with a global onslaught of facism, itself the total mobilization of government, industry, labor, education and science in an effort to conquer the globe, the centralization of political, industrial, and labor institutions was the only logical response. Big government, in that case, was the appropriate response.

Where Barone and other libertarian conservatives are correct is in contending that big government is not the appropriate solution to every vexing issue. Where they are wrong is in their fearful orthodoxy that implies that the only good institution is a tiny one – or a dead one – regardless of circumstance.

We need measures of institutional virtue that rise above the crypto-Freudian obsession with size, that adjudge effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, and costs in a more thoughtful way than simply watching budgets and counting noses.

American history proves that big government can be great, and it can be awful; that big labor can be a force for progress and human dignity at some times, and at others it can suck the lifeblood out of an industry or an economy; and that big business can be the engine of prosperity for the many, or a source of enrichment and empowerment for an aristocracy of merchants and financiers.

Our quest must be to seek the point of balance and to constantly evaluate how it is shifting. Using a simple measure like size is, to borrow from H.L. Mencken, simple, workable, and wrong. Such thinking makes for great sound bytes, but the tools of demagogues too rarely craft good policy.

Libertarians

My problem with Libertarians is that greater liberty is not the answer to every political and social conundrum. A careful reading of our history suggests that the consensual surrender of some human freedoms builds a bulwark against chaos.

There is, naturally, a fine line. But a dogmatic devotion to as much liberty as possible is as dangerous as a dogmatic devotion to security, to stability, and to the pursuit of happiness.