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.