Politics and Rational Self-Interest

One key element of the modern political tradition that we, as members of post-industrial liberal democracies, have inherited is the notion that a political order can be grounded on the foundation of the rational pursuit of self-interest. This strand in the modern tradition supposes that institutions could be constructed that would channel the rational pursuit of self-interest, such that citizens did not need to be virtuous to secure the common good. As with Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand, the forces of the society could be arranged such that by each pursuing what he or she wanted, all would benefit. The individuals in this society may not be great or noble, but all would be better off because these institutions accord public benefits through the pursuit of naked self-interest.

This was a radical innovation in the tradition of political and ethical thought. For Aristotle and Plato, and for Medieval political thought, the bonds of society were based on obligations between members of different classes, and what held together were these shared duties and goals that all had to pursue in order have a prospering, healthy state. For this tradition, a minimally just state could not be based on each individual rationally pursuing what he or she wanted. The reason for this is quite simple. Societies demand sacrifices from their members in order to secure the common good, and a state will not be able to protect itself from internal corruption and external enemies, if each individual sees the state as a mere convenient way to get what they want. These self-interested individuals will just abandon the society when things are not going well, and therefore such a society will always be in danger of collapse and tyranny.

The notion of grounding of social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest is a powerful notion, and in many cases, it is simpler to rely on people’s self interest to create positive consequences rather than relying on some notion of what we owe to others or the common good. However, I think this notion ultimately fails as a grounding of political society, because it cannot provide an adequate account of what we understand to be good statesmanship and good citizenship. I think it also fails in the realm of economics, but its failure is more contested in that area, so I will focus on the political realm. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the notion of grounding social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest as the “enlightened self-interest tradition.”

Firstly, for the enlightened self-interest tradition there is no reason in principle why anyone, including a leader, needs to value the pursuit of the common good intrinsically, rather than as a means to career prosperity, enhanced reputation or some other extrinsic good. For this tradition self-interest is not what we ought to be interested in so that our lives go well, but instead whatever we happen to value; it’s conception of self-interest is that of the economist. As a result unless the statesman happens to value the common good as part of is own good, the pursuit of the common good will simply be one means among many to pursue whatever his apparent self-interest consists in. Furthermore, there is no reason in principle to think that the enlightened self-interest statesman will value the pursuit of the common good as an aspect of his own good; perhaps some leaders see their own good as bound up with that of their community, but there is no evident reason to suppose that this is in fact the case. Consequently, there is no necessary reason why the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest would pursue the common good.

Now, rightly, in response to this, someone might say the argument just elaborated does not show that institutions cannot direct the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest to pursue the common good, because it is actually in their long term self-interest to pursue the common good. In light of this, we must turn to the question of whether institutions can put cleverness in support of the common good.

Institutions are very powerful tools to direct the energies of people towards particular goals. As an example, the fact that donations to charities are a tax deduction surely makes people more likely to give to charity as their taxable income will be lower if they give to charity. In this way, a person’s interest in keeping more of their gross income supports increased revenue for charities. However, the fact that institutions have this result, in particular cases, does not mean that institutions provide a stable safeguard to ensure that individuals pursue the common good. This is so, for a few reasons.

Firstly, the rules of institutions always admit of interpretation, and consequently even institutions that direct avarice towards public beneficence can be corrupted, if those making decisions are shamelessly self-interested. As an example of this we might consider John Yoo who co-authored legal opinions that made “enhanced interrogation techniques” legal, in the context of the USA, by narrowly defining torture, so that practises that would be commonly viewed as torture could be framed as something else entirely. In this case, reasonable and considered judgment is required in applying the rules of any institutions, whether these rules are formal laws, or internal procedures or policies of a governmental organization. Rules by their nature are general and cannot anticipate all particulars, and so good judgment in applying rules must exist in order for proper statesmanship to be possible. Quite simply, institutions that direct the pursuit of self-interest towards justice are insufficient for justice because judicious interpretation and sound judgment is required when dealing with novel cases and new situations.

But statesmanship is more than application of the rules or procedures of an institution. Instead, legislation is fundamental to the activity of statesmanship. Now, it is often argued that in representative democracies it is in politician’s self interest to rule in a way that aims at the common good, because otherwise they will not be reelected. As delegates of the people, the politician, or statesman, must do what the people see as the common good in order to be reelected. The initial problem here is that what citizens want may not be the common good, especially where long term and short term interests are in conflict. Climate change gives a great example of this phenomena, as politicians often do not want to take significant measures on climate change because while most citizens recognize the problem, many significant changes that are called for would at least have some negative consequences on economic prosperity in the short term. As an example, those who are dependent on high-carbon emission industries for their employment will likely be in a more precarious situation if aggressive measures are made to cut emissions. Selling a short term loss for a long term gain is a difficult task, and made all the more difficult in a situation like the one in post-industrial liberal democracies in which instant gratification is the order of life. In this way public opinion in such societies has a tendency to be excessively conservative and aims at the status quo as people tend to discount long term interests in favour of securing short term ones. As a result even if politicians act as delegates for the people and do what they want, often much of what politicians will legislate will be contrary to what they ought to rationally do if they were considering the overall significance of long term and short-term goals. And if leaders of a society take this path of least resistance and simply focus on being reelected how can it be said that the common good can be secured in this context by the rational pursuit of self-interest in conjunction with institutions of electoral representation? Clearly, the common good will be sacrificed for satiating short term interests.

Now some might argue that the example just mentioned is a case where the failure is one of people being adequately rationally self-interested. From this perspective if people really were rational they would not discount long-term interests for short term interests of lesser severity. However, this argument contains the seeds of its own destruction. Firstly, if humans often fail to effectively pursue their rational self-interest because they do not adequately consider long-term interests, than rational self-interest is an equally imperious foundation for social order to virtue or decency. Part of the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account is that it can take human being as they are and create a just society, rather than having to transform human beings into citizens. But if humans often fail to pursue rational self-interest, the creation of the rationally self-interested agent is a matter of convention, rather than nature. So by accepting the failure of people to be adequately rational as a part of humanity the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account loses one of its largest advantages, which is being able to create a just society without having to transform human nature.

The other reason why this rebuttal fails is that long-term interests include both interests that we need to secure within our own finite lives, but also interests we are pursuing for the sake of future generations and that we will not see the fruits of within our own lives. Even if a state has citizens that are very judicious about ensuring that good things happen within their lives, there is no reason to think that this will mean that they will leave a good community for those who inherit the community after they die. Therefore, the pursuit of rational self-interest even at its most enlightened fails to ensure that we provide future generations with a community that is sustainable and that future generations can adequately care for. But to paraphrase Arendt, politics, citizenship and statesmanship are deeply bound to the fact that we are born into a community that existed before us and others will inherit that community after we die. In this light good citizenship and statesmanship cannot be bound to securing interests within the biological life of a particular person or generation, but instead have to preserve the good community for future inhabitants.

In this way, the best statesman cannot simply try to do what will get him an election victory or make him popular, but will have to act as a caretaker to best ensure the equity, prosperity and freedom of the society he is taking care of for his generation and for future generations. Likewise, being a good citizen does not merely mean participating in politics and voicing one’s opinions. Instead it means reflecting on what is best for the society as a whole, taking into account future generations, and taking action on that basis. Consequently, the idea of founding society based on self-interest fails because it cannot grasp the specifically political aspect of our existence that is incarnated in citizenship and statesmanship.

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A Polemic on Modern Liberal Democratic Politics

It seems fairly obvious that a political system in a society needs to have a way of guaranteeing that the long term interests of the society, including the interests of future generations are taken care of and respected (intergenerational justice.) This seems to simply flow from the recognition that all other things equal we want a society to develop to the fullest of its potential, and to be structured so that future generations are not sacrificed for the present desires of existing generations.  According to some, like Burke, one way of ensuring this is through the presence of an aristocratic land-owning class. This class is tied to their estate and has a long term interest in the well-being and health of their state as they want to pass on a fine legacy to their descendants.

However, nothing like this class exists in modern liberal democracies, so what methods do liberal democracies have to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice? One method is through trying to create institutions that serve to ensure that these long term interests are safeguarded. However, I will argue that in themselves institutions are not enough to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice whether in an aristocracy, mixed constitution or a democracy. Instead, a particular kind of culture and public ethic needs to exist that actively condemns sacrificing genuine long term interests to immediate self-interest. As such a culture will help to ensure the long term good of the society is actively maintained.

To serve long term interest and the justice of future generations some modern liberal democratic states have tried to create certain institutions to secure these goods. One such example of this is the US Senate.  In contrast to the House of Representatives in which Representatives have a two year term US Senators have a term of six years. Part of the justification of having these two bodies separate is that the House of Representatives would tend to be more dominated by the needs of political expediency as members of this body have to be extremely concerned with how they vote as their term is so short that they are likely to be punished in an election if they vote against their constituent’s avowed interests. Consequently, members of this legislative body would be more likely to simply vote in a way that got them re-elected rather than in a way that necessary served the long term interest of the community. Contrastingly according to this justification due to the fact that senators have a six year term they are more free to vote according to their best judgment about the interests of the community as their term is long enough that the senator can show their constituents that while their constituents may have initially disagreed with the senator’s actions, his or her actions are actually supportive of their interests, and the long term interest of the state.

While this justification of the US Senate is somewhat plausible, given the current state of US politics it seems that this institutional structure is not enough to secure intergenerational justice and long term interests.  Currently, in the US, at all levels of government including the Senate political expedience seems to dominate over genuine deliberation concerning long term interests. The deliberations within both the lower and upper house have become but theatrical precursors to an election in which senators strut before voters and make sure that their actions translate into electability rather than ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice.

If the example provided by the US Senate is at all typical then it seems that institutions structured in a particular way are not enough to ensure some semblance of intergenerational justice and the safeguarding of long term interests. Even when these institutions are present we tend to see politics in modern liberal democracies dominated by political game playing that serves to ensure an official is re-elected rather than that long term interests are taken care of.

One element that can ameliorate this problem in modern liberal democracies is a culture and public ethic that condemns political activity that puts immediate self-interest ahead of the pursuit of long term interests and intergenerational justice. The trouble with modern liberal democracies is not just that institutions are not perfectly setup but that as a whole we have come to accept the unabashed pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law as legitimate. Just as we do not condemn someone for leaving a company at a challenging time for that company because they have received a tempting job offer, so to in politics we do not condemn voters, or politicians for pursuing their immediate self-interest at the expense of long term interests and intergenerational justice. There is a mild distaste for the crass pursuit of self-interest by politicians, but by and large we do not condemn them and view these agents as having violated some important principle. Instead we see it as the norm for politicians to act this way, and while this norm may bother us we are resigned to accept it as natural.

However, if a culture condemns political activity that pursues immediate self-interest at the expense of all other goods and positively affirms the value of defending long term interests and intergenerational justice, then this would help to ensure that long term interests and intergenerational justice were taken care of.  In this kind of culture all will be more likely to recognize the value of the goods of long term societal interests and intergenerational justice, and act from these principles as the culture affirms them, and consequently people would be honoured for ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice, and dishonoured for sacrificing these goods before the goddess of immediate self-interest. Therefore, a certain kind of culture and public ethic would help to ensure that politics in a liberal democracy serves long term interests and intergenerational justice.

Similarly, this point does not merely apply to liberal democracies, but to other forms of government as well. What ensures that long term interests are served in an aristocracy is not the presence of a landed gentry itself,  but rather the presence of a landed gentry that recognizes that as powerful members of their community they have the responsibility to ensure the long term interests of their state by taking care of their estate and subjects. If an aristocrat in an aristocracy were to act based on crass self-interest they would not ensure long term interest and intergenerational justice as there is no reason inherent in being a member of the landed gentry that determines that one will take care of one’s estate and subject and pass on a fine legacy to one’s descendent and future subjects. What ensures that the landed gentry secure long term interests and intergenerational justice is the culture and public ethic that they act from, not the institution of the landed gentry itself.

However, in putting forward an argument for this kind of political culture that condemns sacrificing long term interests for immediate self-interest we are faced with a huge challenge on three fronts. The first and most obvious challenge is how such a culture comes into being while respecting the independence and freedom of persons. Many historical attempts by states to make a certain kind of culture have been utterly disastrous and cruel such as the Terror in the French Revolution and attempts to assimilate groups like Canadian First Nations. This should make us very cautious about how state policy is used to try to purposefully shape a culture.

The second challenge is that acts that pursue the long term interest and intergenerational justice are not immediately transparent. It is fairly easy for a politician, voter or activist to do something that only furthers their immediate self-interest and yet present it as something that furthers long term interests; in the case of a politician they just need to espouse an argument that shows how their actions will serve long term interests even if this argument is particularly facile or weak. Consequently, it is not always easy to determine when we are dealing with overt acts of immediate self-interest versus at the expense of long term interests and acts that are meant to pursue the overall good of the community including its long term interests and intergenerational justice.

The other challenge is more particular to modern liberal democracy, and that is that these societies carry a heavy mark of consumerism, and consumerism is dominated by the pursuit of immediate self-interest and instant gratification. This raises the question of if the kind of political culture that I am gesturing towards is compatible with our current consumerist economic way of life as there is something quite schizophrenic about rejecting the uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law within the economic sphere, while rejecting it in the political sphere.  Unfortunately, if it turns out that these two modes of activity are incompatible then we will have to choose between a politics that can help us secure intergenerational justice as well as long term interests and the maintenance of our current economic practises.

Economics, Politics and Self-Interest

It is quite commonplace within the political culture of liberal democratic societies to view politics and politicians in an exceedingly negative light. Many people will often speak of how all politicians are “crooks”. Furthermore, we often hear people using the term “politics” to refer to any situation involving illegitimate bias, partisanship or unfairness. For example, when people refer to a workplace as “political,” they tend to mean that people are not rewarded by their merit, but because of other factors including manipulation and deceit. Consequently, it seems that “politics” as a subject occupies a particularly negative place in the popular imagination of liberal democratic society. However, the trouble with this attitude towards politics is that while it rightly condemns the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest within politics, it cannot explain why politics should not operate according to self-interest, when the broader economy largely operates according to this logic.

Within liberal democratic culture it is seen as perfectly legitimate to try to secure the best possible job for yourself as long as you do not violate the rights of others. To a large extent this has become the dominant maxim of public morality within liberal democratic culture. But while letting the relatively uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest dominate within the broader economy may be acceptable, it leads to a deep problem at the level of politics. For example, when politicians are motivated by the need for re-election they will pass legislation that ensures their re-election, rather than legislation that best serves the interests of all. Furthermore, the person who switches his views at a financial institution to get a promotion or to keep his job, is viewed is prudent, but a politician who takes a different position to ensure re-election is viewed negatively. This disconnect between politics and the broader economy show that the morality of the broader economy is inadequate to govern politics in that we think that there is something wrong with a politician putting career self-interest before the common good, whereas it is legitimate for a person working within the broader economy to do this. Consequently, politics seems to require a more robust morality than the mutual pursuit of self-interest. Rather, in order for politics to reach its moral potential it must operate according to some kind of commitment to the common interest to ensure that legislation is passed that actually serves the common interest.

The trouble is that within liberal democratic culture there seems to be very few voices who speak of the importance of being committed to the common interest, rather at one moment we seem to view politics as just another job that should operate according to the same logic as others, but at the same time we seem to hold politicians to a higher standard, but without being able to explain why they should be held to a higher standard. Consequently, we need to recover the distinction between the morality governing the broader economy, and the morality governing politics so that we adequately grasp the differences between these two realms. If we fail to grasp the difference between these two realms then our criticism of politics will seem incoherent, as we will be criticizing politics and politicians for engaging in actions that are perfectly legitimate outside of politics, without being able to explain why politicians should not engage in these actions while they are involved in the practise of politics.