Sunday, April 10, 2011

Self-interest properly understood

In the current Vanity Fair, of all places, a significant, thoughtful essay by a distinguished economist, Joseph Stiglitz, who says America has become a country where inequality has been allowed to grow.  A country where the majority are doing worse year after year "is not likely to do well over the long haul."

We have allowed a powerful elite, the top 1% of the population, to emerge. 

Much of the inequality has been caused by the manipulation of our financial system made possible by changes in rules paid for by the big bankers themselves.

The most damning and alarming passage:  Virtually all the Senators and most members of the House are "members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well, they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office."
Stiglitz points out most tellingly the consequences of this recent policy on our sense of identity, opportunity, and community; in short, on social justice issues.  He quotes Tocqueville's identification of something uniquely American: self-interest properly understood.

If we don't think of ourselves, who will?  But if we think only of ourselves, who are we? 

This statement, paraphrased from Hillel, is basic to the notion of the common good, that essential element in any governmment worthy of the name, while recognizing the rights of the individual. 

If we have "properly understood" self-interest, we recognize that paying attention to the needs and self-interest of others is not only a spiritually correct notion but "a precondition for one's own ultimate well-being," in Stiglitz's words. In other words, looking out for others is not only good for the soul; it's good for business.

So our ruling elite, if they fail to see that they are obligated to the 99 percent of the citizenry, are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, as they did in the recent financial debacle.

All this reminds me of the important point made by Robert Bellah twenty or more years ago in Habits of the Heart: that extreme individualism may seem as American as apple pie, but it must be balanced with a concern for the common good. We exist as individuals within the context of a community; we cannot go it alone. We depend for our very identity on those who have created the society to which we contribute.

Perhaps this is why I can tolerate only so much news about what happens in Washington, where unbridled self-interest rules in spite of lofty rhetoric that promises something more noble, where Tea Party members do all they can to advance self-interest--not properly understood.

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