Our founding fathers envisioned a nation guided by enlightened self-interest
By Mark Ruscoe, Local Columnist
June 20, 2003 11:19 p.m.

Every once in a while, an opinion on the AC-T editorial pages reaches out and grabs me in a way I can't explain at first. The June 8 column by Casey Hurley, professor at WCU, was one. He was talking about how we too often, especially in editorializing here, attribute motives to others in an attempt to illustrate our own points in a more favorable light. I agree.

We do, although really, isn't that what the art of editorializing is all about -- point/counter- point? And a certain amount of strawman mentality is inherent and unavoidable in this activity. But the really thought-provoking parts for me were his comments regarding "self-interest," which came in for quite a bit of criticism. He said, "Civilization depends on rejecting the belief that self-interest is the dominant motivation." And that "norms of civilized societies are based on the opposite belief -- that humans often rise above self-interest." In other words, how undesirable for society it is when people cannot rise above their own self-interested impulses. Now I have no idea where his politics lie, but this petition for selflessness is one that I see made frequently nowadays by those who have liberal inclinations. Indeed, our two main political parties can be loosely defined by this terminology: selfless, humanitarian Democrats and selfish, cold-hearted Republicans. So if he would permit me to violate his other admonition, let me attribute motives to those who would make this argument.

I want to examine how self-interest is actually part of our fabric, how the term is misused, and how honesty about it would be to our benefit. First, psychologically. According to Maslow's Theory of Self-Actualization, our primal needs are self-interested -- that is for physical homeostasis and protection -- fundamentally selfish needs. All else follows and is secondary. Perhaps in difficult times such as these, we become more acutely tuned to these basics.

At any rate, I think it pays to recognize that no matter how well we transcend the fundamentals, on a deep personal level, we all are selfish. Think about it. If you have an opinion at all, isn't it by definition a selfish one? Of course it is. It's unavoidable. It is impossible to separate "ourselves" from our self-interest. Your point of view, even if it is unselfish, is generated from your self-interest. Mine too. Don't even manners and sacrifice for others (which I heartily recommend) have at their core an element of selfishness? Don't they allow us to feel better about ourselves, make us feel closer to our God, or give us that selfish feeling of "order" in our world?

Our country was founded on self-interested principles. Go back and reread the Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms, freedom of religion, the rest. Sure, formulated in a context to provide for common benefit, but originating in individual, self-centered rights. Totalitarians eat selfless people for lunch. So it was important in these founding principles to stress individualism, even at the expense of failure ("the pursuit of happiness"-- not "the guarantee of happiness").

Our economic model, capitalism, is based on self-interest. A man, through the fruit of his labor, sustains himself, thus finding self-worth and respect. Unfortunately, this principle, maybe above all others, comes under intense fire from those who see income redistribution as more selfless and enlightened. As a consequence however, the recipient of this selfless behavior by others fails to realize his self-worth and self-respect. Thus the cycle is endlessly repeated, to everyone's detriment. Many at the bottom of our society, the most vulnerable among us, are now spiritless, characterless wards of the state as a result of this vicious cycle.

And of course, politically. Ah, yes! Perhaps the ultimate venue for self-interested behavior, disguised as selflessness. Liberals, ever the clever ones, have elevated this to an art form. Kind and thoughtful appeals to selfless behavior by those on the left, I confess, arouse deep suspicions within me.

When I hear this moralizing, I get the distinctly uncomfortable feeling I'm being lured down the road to some various watering down of a standard; more relativism, more appeasement, more taxes -- the usual litany of grand designs.

I visualize the sentimental posturing of Clintonian lip biting, the false "I feel your pain" empathy and -- excuse me, it makes me want to gag. I visualize the selfless abdication of our personal and national sovereignty to such communal bodies as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court -- then the resultant subversion of our individuality as a just nation to the sewer that much of the world is becoming.

It's time we reject this "It takes a village" selfless mental mush, realizing that it does no one any favors. Only when we confront honestly the realization of our innate selfishness can we honestly deal with others (and dare I say, with God -- for the charade of selflessness in God's presence is but hypocrisy). Anyway, yes, manners are important. Civility is important. Kindness is important. Even giving one's life for another is important.

But enlightened self-interest is what will let us fashion a society and world that works, exactly as was envisioned by our founding fathers. Not by cloying appeals to selfless, liberal groupthink, which to me has the faint, but unmistakable odor of collectivism.

Mark Ruscoe lives in Asheville. He can be contacted by e-mail at wellinghall@bellsouth.net.