Readers debate whether our political culture has changed.
To the Editor:
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.
PAUL L. NEVINS
Boston, July 9, 2012
The writer, a lawyer, is the author of “The Politics of Selfishness.”
There is clearly a crisis in America today, but it is not that we have become more selfish. Research simply doesn’t support that assertion.
Numerous surveys show that Americans remain, generally speaking, generous and community-oriented. For example, a significant majority of the American public supports most of the key elements of health care reform when presented to them piecemeal as opposed to as “Obamacare”; believes the very rich should pay more in taxes; and supports safety net programs such as Social Security. These are not the beliefs of a selfish nation. What, then, is the problem?
The problem is the emergence of 24-hour propaganda-spewing partisan media and the blogosphere at the same time that traditional media, particularly print media, are being both drowned out and financially battered by the Internet. Special interests have taken advantage of the resulting chaos. The result is that many well-meaning and decent Americans who are anything but selfish simply don’t know where and whom to turn to for facts and leadership anymore.
Unable to decipher the truth from spin on issues ranging from climate change to deficit spending during a recession, and facing a scary and rapidly changing global economy, more Americans than ever are susceptible to the snake-oil-selling agents of special interests.
TAL J. ZLOTNITSKY
Trinity, Fla., July 11, 2012
Mr. Nevins claims that our political and economic problems are due to “selfishness.” But since “selfishness” is in the eye of the beholder, it can be used to characterize almost any position and used (as Mr. Nevins does here) to demonize opponents. Thus, for example, those who oppose health care reform on the ground that it will lead to an even more wasteful and expensive health care system are merely being selfish, in the author’s view—and their arguments need not be taken seriously.
Of course, one could just as easily portray Mr. Nevins’s positions as the product of selfishness, such as that taxes should be raised only on the “very wealthy” (and not on the author himself). But this does nothing to advance useful debate.
Indeed, since selfishness is not always a bad thing—after all, our free market economy depends on actions individuals take every day to advance their own self-interest—it can hardly be used to gauge the rightness of one’s political beliefs.
RANDALL J. PEACH
Whitehouse Station, N.J., July 12, 2012
If most Americans cast a selfish vote, we would have had national health insurance decades ago, a more equitable tax system, more government services for citizens who need them, and fewer for large corporations that don’t. And we might have avoided misadventures in places like Vietnam and Iraq.
The problem is that those at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid tend to vote in their self-interest, and tens of millions of others vote with them and undermine their own interests in the process. I have never subscribed to Ayn Rand’s top-down advocacy for the “virtue of selfishness,” but from the bottom up it might be just what we need.
Cambridge, Mass., July 11, 2012
Mr. Nevins is quite correct in providing an affirmative answer to the question: “Is selfishness at the root of America’s political and economic problems?” But he has it all backward.
Hard-working, productive and frugal taxpayers are not exhibiting “selfishness” or “envy” when they question “efforts to provide relief to homeowners facing foreclosures and college graduates mired in debt” by asking, “Why should my tax dollars be used to help someone who was less frugal than I was?”
Rather, it is irresponsible homeowners and debt-ridden college graduates themselves who are acting selfishly when then ask, “Why shouldn’t other people’s tax dollars be used to bail me out just because I’ve been less responsible, less productive or less frugal than they were?”
ALAN J. MILLER
New York, July 11, 2012
Mr. Nevins opines that the “private affluence and public squalor” decried by John Kenneth Galbraith has been exacerbated over the last 60 years, but is this really the case? Certainly chief executives today earn salaries that are many times greater than those of their 1950s counterparts, and the wealthiest Americans bear a far less onerous tax burden.
However, it is less clear that the standard of living of the rest of Americans has fallen as dramatically as the fortunes of the wealthy have risen. Social progress since the 1960s has in part compensated for, if not completely counteracted, wage stagnation and narcissism.
To give just a few examples: Compared with 60 years ago, women have far more options when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, public assistance for the poor is more readily accessible, blacks and other minorities face far less discrimination in the job market, and home mortgages and credit are more easily obtained by ordinary citizens.
Increasing the purview of government and strengthening regulations brought this progress about. It is arguable, even probable, that these developments have contributed to a rising, rather than a declining, quality of life for most Americans.
Brooklyn, July 11, 2012
High levels of selfishness in today’s modern society are a reflection of desperation and a seismic shift in perceived opportunities for the masses. The advantaged classes of the past were often the object of scorn, just as today’s 1 percent generate the ire of a population that feels it is swimming upstream.
The difference is that the “haves” of the past inspired others toward achievements of their own. Fifty years ago, a solid education and hard work were enough to guarantee upward mobility. By contrast, today’s average American fears that future generations will not live as well as past generations, and that a solid education and strong work ethic guarantee nothing.
The impression is that the “pot” of prosperity is fixed; that one person’s gain is necessarily another person’s loss. This zero-sum view of the future places the focus on the “me” instead of the “we,” dominating American politics and weakening our economy and standing in the world.
Milwaukee, July 11, 2012
I share Mr. Nevins’s conclusion that the health of democracy benefits from a shared understanding of the advantages of collective action and responsibility. I disagree, however, with his diagnosis that selfishness is the root cause of an erosion of that understanding.
Mr. Nevins sees appeals to “the selfish instincts of voters” as the basis for justifying public policy positions on a variety of issues, including health insurance reform, financial regulation, tax policy, mortgage relief, student loans and public employee benefits. To the contrary, the appeals driving these debates cultivate the opposite of selfishness.
The advocates of limited government whose emphasis on individualism alarms Mr. Nevins are, paradoxically, collectivists. Their core message is that the collective power of markets solves problems. For instance, the conservative argument against expanding health insurance is not that the uninsured are less deserving of coverage or that the insured shouldn’t worry about the uninsured; it’s that given an opportunity, unfettered markets will magically take care of the problem.
A genuine appeal to selfishness would invoke obligations for individuals to take responsibility for their actions and the consequences. Arguments built on market illusion give citizens a pass on personal responsibility. They invite us to fantasize that unseen forces beyond ourselves will solve everyone’s problems.
Nashville, July 11, 2012
The writer is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University.
I had just completed a year as a health policy fellow serving on the staff of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions during the battle for health care reform early in the Obama administration. On my last day in Washington before returning to my faculty position at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, I toured the National Portrait Gallery with my son. He wanted to see the display about the 14 men who ascended to the presidency from the vice presidency.
As we strolled through the gallery, a television monitor was playing videos of famous presidential speeches. On came John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 1961. For my son, it was history. For me, it was yesterday: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
After a year of witnessing countless lobbyists jostle for position among the staff of the Senate to improve the revenue streams of their various clients—hospitals, insurers, pharmaceutical companies—to formulate something more akin to a deal than a bill, I thought I had lost track of why I started on the journey through medical school to research and public policy in the first place.
With one sentence, I remembered how it all began when I was 12.
Let’s “ask not” again.
LEONARD A. ZWELLING
Bellaire, Tex., July 11, 2012
The Writer Responds
Some readers think that we are not selfish enough, others that we misunderstand the meaning of selfishness.
Mr. Peach argues that selfishness is not always a bad thing and that the free market economy depends upon actions in pursuit of one’s own interests. But isn’t that precisely the problem? Wasn’t the current Great Recession, in large part, caused by giving avarice and selfishness free rein as regulation of the financial markets was emasculated?
Mr. Eisen has a point that too many voters don’t understand their own self-interest, but I think that there is an important distinction between selfishness (which is based upon short-term calculations) and self-interest (which requires a long-term perspective). Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” seems to have correctly identified the etiology of this political malady.
Lastly, I agree with Mr. Zlotnitsky that the 24-hour media have enabled special interests to fill the void with partisan rhetoric, but I disagree that Americans remain “community-oriented.” Research by Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor and author of “Bowling Alone,” challenges this assumption.
Over the decades, as Americans migrated from cities to suburbs and exurbs, their ties to community, already weakened by the residual individualism of our culture, have unraveled. Ever larger amounts of time are expended commuting. Neighborhoods have become merely places to sleep and to mow the lawn. This sense of isolation has numbed the ability of many of us to feel that we are members of a broader political community in which all of us, as citizens, must play a part for our mutual advancement.
Boston, July 12, 2012
Note from KBJ: Self-interest is the engine of prosperity. If you destroy it, you destroy prosperity, leaving everyone equally destitute. The main letter writer (Paul Nevins) should read Adam Smith rather than (or in addition to) Karl Marx. Most of the problems we face are rooted in envy, which is the driving force behind progressivism. Progressives can't stand it that some have more than others. They don't believe in desert and therefore think that all disparities in wealth or status are the product of injustice. The theoretician of progressive envy, and the main proponent of the view that nobody deserves what he or she has or lacks, is John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice (1971).