The Magazine

Self-Interest Is Bad?

Enough with the hectoring.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Oh, terrific. Now we have two of them--two presidential candidates, presumptive nominees of their respective parties, who insist they will not rest until they have inspired all of us stick-in-the-mud Americans to reach celestial heights of personal fulfillment by committing ourselves to a life of service. Service to what? Service to .  .  . something or other. The phrase that both John McCain and Barack Obama use is a "cause higher than yourself" or "greater than self" or alternatively a "cause greater than your own self-interest." Whatever the precise wording--for now, let's just use an unpronounceable acronym, CGTYOSI--we'll be hearing it a lot till November.

McCain grabbed it first, years ago. CGTYOSI appears in his first memoir, Faith of My Fathers. In fact, it's the theme of the book, dramatized by the story arc: McCain begins as an impetuous young midshipman resisting the Navy's attempts to "bend [him] to a cause greater than self-interest," and then endures harrowing adversity, rejects the shallowness of his earlier life, and embraces a CGTYOSI. As a candidate, McCain has fastened on the phrase as one of those prefab word-clumps that politicians automatically release when answering a question about this or that. He uses it constantly. "If you've remembered anything I've said," he often tells audiences, "please remember there's nothing nobler than serving a cause greater than your own self-interest." As McCain tells it, that cause is found in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and other government agencies that pay people to volunteer. More Americans should have been asked to sign up for those organizations after 9/11, he says. "And as president of the United States in January of 2009, I will ask them to serve again."

Me too, says Obama (as he often does). "When I am president of the United States," he said earlier this month, "I will ask for your service." Both McCain and Obama scold President Bush for not calling Americans to serve a CGTYOSI in the wake of the terrorist attacks in 2001. "After 9/11," says McCain, "I would not have asked Americans to go shopping."

"Instead of a call to service, we were asked to go shopping," Obama points out.

So that's settled: no more shopping next year. But the candidates really are misrepresenting poor President Bush, everyone's punching bag. As far back as 1999, while a presidential candidate, Bush began telling people to serve a CGTYOSI, and he never stopped. He's even said it to Larry King. In an interview days after he was first elected, he told Larry that what he hoped for his daughters above all was that "someday they understand what it means to serve a cause greater than self." And of course he used it after 9/11, over and over again. "We want to be a nation that serves goals greater than self," he said in his 2002 State of the Union, to cite one example. The searchable White House database of presidential pronouncements lists 1,020 uses of the phrase since 2001. That's a lot.

It was inevitable that Obama would cop the phrase--repeating the idea as though it had come to him as a revelation, in front of supporters and journalists who apparently have been hypnotized into believing they've never heard it before. Anyone with a long memory and the patience to listen knows that Obama is truly shameless in this regard. Sometimes his stump speeches sound like a Time-Life greatest-hits compilation of Unforgettable Classic Political Baloney from the '70s, '80s, and '90s, with one cant phrase after another lifted from speeches by Ronald Reagan, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, John Kerry, Ross Perot, George Bush--yes, I said Elizabeth Dole--Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean, Newt Gingrich, everybody. Like most of those phrases ("choose hope over fear," "we'll take this country back"), CGTYOSI hasn't been fresh for years. It wasn't even fresh 43 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson announced, in his inaugural address, that Americans "want to be part of a common enterprise--a cause greater than themselves." Look where that got us.

On first hearing, I suppose, a politician's call to CGTYOSI seems like a nice idea, something uplifting and public-spirited, a way to unite a diverse population. The more you think about it, though, the creepier the phrase becomes, especially when used as a political tactic.

What's so bad about self-interest, anyway? It's certainly true that Americans pursue their self-interest--and a good thing, too. Both of our presidential candidates are wealthy men--McCain through his marriage to a beer heiress, Obama through royalties from his bestselling books--but neither seems to understand the wellsprings of general prosperity. Democratic capitalism takes the self-interestedness of human beings as a given and corrals it in ways that work to everyone's benefit. Without self-interest, there would be no beer distributorships or liquor stores, no book publishers or bookshops, and both Obama and McCain would be vastly, and literally, poorer for it.

Condescension lies behind the call to a CGTYOSI. Why does a candidate feel compelled to exhort his nation to a higher cause, especially a cause that's purposely left gauzy and undefined? He reveals a low opinion of his countrymen by doing so. He implies a population lost in self-absorption and narcissism, each member ignoring others in pursuit of selfish ends. It takes a lot of nerve to say that, even by insinuation--and since Obama and McCain want to make it personal, let's do.

Earlier this spring, Obama said that in the last year he had spent scarcely any time at his Chicago home, where his wife is trying to rear his young daughters, both under ten years old. He was away from his job in Washington nearly as often, so he could travel around the country cultivating wealthy people who would help finance his run for president. Likewise, for 25 years John McCain has kept his wife and growing children back in Arizona, while he stayed in Washington and, on weekends, traveled to political events, shaking hands, giving speeches, raising money, and otherwise making himself the center of attention. In both cases they do look like men pursuing their self-interest and ignoring causes greater than themselves--the rearing of their children, for example, and the careful attending to their less glamorous professional obligations.

Candidates don't seek office by insulting the voters, of course. It's hard to imagine a candidate running on a promise to Bring Change that a Nation of Slackers and Thumbsuckers Like You Can Believe In. But the implication is there nonetheless, and if the sly insult doesn't offend voters, it's because they think it's directed at everyone but themselves. Very few people believe that they're pursuing selfish ends exclusively, or that they need a big, rhetorical goosing from their elected officials to get up and do the right thing. But with a little persuasion, people can be made to think that other people need a goosing. As a campaign tool, the CGTYOSI is a kind of wedge tactic that separates the listener from his fellows through flattery, disguising its divisiveness in a call to unity: Maybe, we all think, President McCain can give all those Americans a good hard talking to and make them stop being so selfish.

But the main reason people don't think that they themselves are pursuing selfish ends is that they aren't. The creepiest thing about the CGTYOSI as a political tool is this: The politician who uses it doesn't realize that the vast majority of his fellow citizens are already serving causes greater than their self-interest. You could call it "self-interest properly understood," as Tocqueville did, or "reciprocal altruism," as the evolutionary biologists do. We're doing it all the time just the same, and we couldn't get away from it even if we wanted to--and we don't want to.

Whoever wins the White House, the heart sinks to imagine the rhetorical tone of the next administration, thanks to John McCain's regret over his years as a rebellious midshipman and Barack Obama's vanity over the years he spent berating slumlords on the South Side of Chicago. For four long years the rest of us will be hectored about pursuing a cause greater than our self-interest, with the unavoidable implication that as we go through the day getting our kids out of bed, packing their lunches, helping them with homework, dragging ourselves to our jobs, enduring an hour's commute, so we can make enough money to meet our mortgage, attending PTA meetings, feeding the dog, going to church, mowing our neighbor's lawn while he's on vacation, planning a birthday party, saying a prayer for a sick friend, picking up a six-pack for our brother-in-law on the way home, writing a check to the Red Cross, shopping for an old roommate's wedding gift, pretending to listen to the tedious beefs of a co-worker, telephoning an aging aunt, and otherwise doing what it is we need to do to make our lives mean something, we are merely pursuing what our two presidential candidates consider our selfish interest. Because we haven't joined one of their national service programs.

For now, of course, each of the two men, McCain and Obama, points to himself as an exemplar of service--even as he avoids his family, neglects his job, and hands his everyday obligations over to poorly paid subordinates, all so he can fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming the most powerful and celebrated man in the world. What do you know: They think their self-interest is a cause greater than their self-interest. Funny how that happens.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.