Conservative News & Commentary

Jul 8, 2011 — by: A. Smith
Categories: Economics, Culture

In political discourse the goal has always been the same: win the argument. But today it feels a little different than yesteryear because it's: win — at all costs. Said another way, often the ends often justify the means. With this win at all cost mentality, something is sacrificed — the truth. Candidates tend to shade the facts one way or another when it concerns themselves and often outright lie about their opponent’s views.

One sad casualty in this "new politic" is the real meaning of Self Interest. Ask anyone what this term means and most wouldn't have any idea. Those who do respond usually confuse self interest with being self-centered or selfish.

Self Interest is a crucial conservative concept for the general public to understand. Without a proper understanding conservatives become easy targets, quickly labeled by opponents as greedy, mean spirited and self-serving. So what does Self Interest mean?

The classical idea of Self Interest is that

  1. Each person is responsible for themselves (or family).
  2. Each person is allowed to pursue their own dreams — as long as they don't burden their fellow citizen.

To that end, some become bakers, others bankers and yet others butchers. It really doesn't matter what as long as each person is self-sufficient. Moreover, in a free market economy, an invisible hand is at work to ensure there aren't too many bankers and not enough butchers. If too many people pursue banking, some won't succeed while at the the same time there will be money to be made by becoming a butcher, because there are too few to meet the market demand. 

To illustration here's a quick little story.

Suppose there are two neighbors who live next door to one another. One neighbor, we'll call Adam, gets up each morning and goes to work at a local hardware store. The other neighbor, we'll call Karl, was laid off last year and hasn't been able to find a new job. Upon returning from work each evening Adam sees Karl busy in his garage restoring a 1967 Mustang convertible. Adam asks Karl if he's had any luck finding a new job and Karl replies that he hasn't, but he continues to look.

After several months of the same routine Adam decides to ask Karl an additional question. Had Karl ever thought of opening up an auto-mechanic shop? From Adam's perspective, Karl seems to have a passion for cars and also appears to be mechanically gifted. Karl says he did, but he didn't think it would pay what his last job did. Further, if Karl started his own business, his ability to collect unemployment compensation and food stamps would be compromised. Karl says he isn't willing to risk losing those guaranteed benefits as it helps him keep his house and put food on the table for his family.

Now for a question. Who is pursuing the concept of self-interest and who is self-centered? At first glance it looks like both are pursuing self-interest. Adam goes to work to meet his needs and Karl provides for his family with the benefits he receives until another or better work opportunity comes along. However, the real answer is that Karl is the self-centered one and Adam is motivated by self interest.

Karl is self-centered because he fails to meet both criteria above. First Karl is not being responsible for himself, because he is relying on "benefits" to meet his needs. Those benefits just don't come magically out of thin air. The reality is that Karl's working neighbors are paying taxes so he can receive those benefits. What's worse is that the government doesn't have enough money through taxes for these benefits. The government then borrows the money or prints it out of thin air. Both are extremely damaging to the long-term health of the economy. Second, Karl holding out for a similar paying job as he previously had places a burden on his fellow citizens. So while he works on restoring his car, he really is telling others to continue working to support his passion with no expense or risk to him. He plays the "woe is me" card because he's unemployed, but as Adam pointed out, he should pursue his mechanical skills in the marketplace and stop expecting others to carry his water.

The main problem with government give away programs (also known as "benefits") is that they quickly eat away at the spirit of self interest. Government becomes the generous one, demanding nothing from the recipient except that they becoming increasingly selfish. On the other side government demands that the producers in society continue to pay more and more so that the beneficiaries won't suffer. While a safety net is fine concept, unemployment compensation for 99 weeks, food stamps forever, medicare and social security until you die do not make economic sense. They are concepts disconnected from reality. Unless changed, our nation's economy will drown as more and more people follow Karl's model for living when times are tough.

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“When people are universally ignorant, and debauched in their manners, they will sink under their own weight without the aid of foreign invaders.”

— Samuel Adams, letter to James Warren, 1775

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