The Magazine

Self-Interest Is Bad?

Enough with the hectoring.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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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.