Happy 4th to the selfish individualists!
It’s that time of year again: BBQ’s galore; fireworks cracking; American flags waving in the breeze. It’s also the time of year when someone writes somewhere about… “The Downside of Liberty”. Yes fellow citizens, having too much liberty is bad for you because we’re all like self-indulgent children— who when left unattended, will just eat the entire cookie jar by themselves and not share. Nevermind that research has actually shown that many children are not self-indulgent at all. But who care about facts.
I digress. Let’s get back to “The Downside of Liberty”. The main thesis is this: rugged American individualism creates selfish bastards, who love capitalism above all else, and care for no one other than themselves. An example:
When I was growing up in Omaha, rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees. Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name.
But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.
Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.
“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.
People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.
First, I am not going to delve into the “Selfish” vs “Self Interested” debate (some people think of them as synonyms, some do not). I usually use the terms interchangeably — “concerned primarily with ones own interests”— and will do so here. 1) Yes, we are all selfish because we all think first of ourselves…no matter what we do. 2) There is nothing inherently wrong with that basic fact. 3) Being self interested/selfish does NOT exclude doing good for others and/or making the lives of others better.
1- One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone— upon hearing what I do for a living — says: “that is so wonderful of you to work with children with disabilities. I wish I were as selfless as you.” Actually, I do what I do not because I lack “self” but because I am self interested. I chose my profession based first on what I wanted to do with my life. Note how many times I just used the words “I” and “my”. I wanted to work with children because it made me happy and fulfilled. Yes, my patients have benefited from the selfish decision I made over 10 years ago. But let us not pretend I made that decision because of some notion of altruism or selflessness. I thought first of self and what would make my life more fulfilling.
2- What is inherently wrong with thinking of self first? I can already see the eye rolling, followed by the self righteous answer: “Well, I’m sure Bernie Madoff agrees with you completely.” Sure, it is fair to say that Madoff acted in his own self interest when he swindled millions. But why not mention Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or any number of other people who made their fortunes by following their passions (read self interests)? And here lies the problem: being self interested and harming others are not synonymous. That is why Madoff is in jail and Bill Gates is saving/improving millions of lives across the globe.
3- Speaking of Bill Gates, does anyone doubt that he and his billions are helping more people in this world than most of us could— including the people who would like to see a more “selfless” society? It is important to mention that Bill Gates— the man who followed his self interest to build a computer empire— is changing the world by using his immense fortune, acquired by that rugged individualism Americans are often chastised for. In other words, the rich individualist ends up affecting more change than all the collectivists put together. That is certainly telling. Perhaps being self interested/selfish is actually better for society. I certainly think so.
Now, I’m not even going to venture into a critique of the notion that America is somehow a capitalist paradise, with low regulations and taxes. That is simply not correct. What I do find interesting is that the author thinks society has somehow gone to hell after the 1960’s. Yet it was in the decades since that we got Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and so many other entrepreneurs that have made our lives and the world, better. Sure, in our somewhat open economic system (I use the world “open” merely in comparison to most other countries) you will still find Bernie Madoff’s and Ken Lay’s. But you also find Bill Gates. And if you want to get rid of the Madoff’s— by using lots regulations and government controls— you will be highly unsuccessful because in such a system…there are more crooks and thieves. But most importantly: there are no Bill Gates. And would society be better off without him? No.
Happy 4th to all you selfish, self interested, self-indulgent individualists!