Saturday, October 12, 2013

Selfishness as virtue.


Libertarian thought  is what many of the tea partiers claim as their philosophical roots.  They just want government to "leave them alone"... they want "freedom" and have adopted "don't tread on me" bumper stickers.  Meanwhile, many of the enablers/leaders of the tea party are encouraging the government shutdown because they'll get more concessions and a smaller government out of the deal.

I'm not convinced many of the tea partiers actually understand this, their misunderstood hatred for government is used against them with the shutdown (i.e. - "see, government can't do anything!"), but they don't want or understand Grover Norquist's vision of a government so small we could drown it in the bathtub.  Based on the issues, it turns out what they want is their version of "big" government.  And their strings have been pulled by the Norquist's of the world. While, in today's world it's seen as a "noble us" versus "communist them" standoff, as Robert Reich points out in his latest, folks from the left and right  have always had their problems with "big" government:

No one likes big government. If you're on the left, you worry about the military-industrial-congressional complex that's spending zillions of dollars creating new weapons of mass destruction, spying on Americans, and killing innocents abroad. And you don't like government interfering in your sex life, telling you how and when you can have an abortion, whom you can marry. If you're on the right, you worry about taxes and regulations stifling innovation, out-of-control bureaucrats infringing on your freedom, and government deficits as far as the eye can see.

Tip O'Neil and Ronald Reagan; Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, are a few of many examples of political odd couples who would share a drink (or twelve) and get stuff done.  During the Reagan Administration his head of Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) said that her goal was to close down the ARC.  As this was a program that provided lots of funding to the poor areas of Appalachia many were incensed.  When a group of concerned folks went to see Appropriations Chairman Whitten about her remarks, he was reported to have said something like this, "Now don't you all worry about losing ARC, you see Reagan wants another battleship and we'll give that to him, but in return we'll get the ARC... that's how it works up here"

It's clear that's not the way it works in Washington today. And to be sure, American's bitched and complained about all the backroom deal making then, but cordial deal cutting may never return.  The polarized media, corporate dollars, the tea party, elected "true believers" are all factors, but  perhaps the most important reason is that selfishness has become a virtue.

One of the tenants I was taught in grad school regarding community development was that one way to engage people in community conversations was through the concept of "enlightened self-interest".  This made sense to me for years -  in order to get diverse groups involved, or interested, in the issue you're working on you have to find out how what you're doing could benefit them.  Find that "one-off" where your action while benefiting others, is in fact benefiting the person your "selling" as well.

But, at the roots of enlightened self interest is selfishness.  And if you look at our culture today, selfishness has become a virtue.  We're not willing to do anything for others unless it benefits our interest. We watch reality shows to separate ourselves, to see others fail, we're engulfed by consumerism and status, it plays out like bad theater in neighborhoods, communities and national politics across the board.  As research shows, certain groups just don't listen and/or care what those of "less status" say (Rich People Just Care Less). And in a political world where you're either with us or against us, no longer is anyone asking - what benefits your fellow man or woman?  Much less are they reflecting on what their religions say about treating others.  Imagine that instead of  worshiping at the silly, childish, selfish Ayn Rand Libertarian alter, where you innately believe it's "you against them", you made up your own ideology, say the Communitarians? Where the primary tenants are - "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" and "treat others the way you would like to be treated".

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