2013-10-10

The "Because I Personally Benefit" School Of Politics

It is generally understood to be human nature that people act on incentives according to their own rational self interest. I think this is a perfectly reasonable description of human decision-making. But human beings also live in communities, and communities have rules formal and otherwise.

If I'm playing a game of tennis, it's in my rational self interest to score as many points as possible and win the game, regardless of how nice it would be if the my opponent won. But somehow I manage to stop short of shooting my opponent in the head. Aside from being an unconscionable act of cold-blooded murder, it's against the rules of the game. In fact, the game isn't any fun for anyone unless I play by the rules.

The real purpose of a tennis match is to have some fun. The purpose of a government is to "form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, ensure the blessings of liberty" and so on. Thus, the analogy to government is, "the endeavor won't 'establish justice, etc. etc.' unless we play by the rules."

The reason I bring this up is because I am coming across more and more arguments in favor of certain policies that are justified on no other principle than "because I personally benefit." I'd like to discuss a few examples.

Examples
Many of my Facebook acquaintances favor Obamacare for no reason other than that they now have insurance, whereas they did not have insurance before. The weakness of this argument is not that it isn't true, but that for those of us who feel that Obamacare undermines the Rule of Law in the United States, it seems psychopathic. After all, if Barack Obama mugged a bunch of people and delivered the proceeds to your doorstep in a briefcase and gave you a hug, you would certainly be much better off than you were beforehand. Nevertheless, most of us would feel uncomfortable defending our position as beneficiaries of a series of armed robberies. What opponents of Obamacare are looking for is not a story about how much better off you are now, but why the method employed is a fair and appropriate means to make you better off at the expense of others, and perhaps the system itself. Get it?

Another good example is what you see from the immigration restrictionist side of the open borders debate. At Marginal Revolution, a pro-immigration commenter asks, "Surely [unemployment, the debt, and poverty] will improve for the immigrants? Or do they not count?" To this, noted immigration restrictionist and "man-o-sphere" member 'Anti-Gnostic' replies:
Why should they? I care about my wife more than your wife, my daughter more than your daughter, my country more than your or some other person’s country, and on and on.
Pro-immigration commenter "BC" responds to Anti-Gnostic:
You care more about your wife and daughter than your neighbor’s wife and daughter... However, I would hope that you would oppose any laws that prevented willing employers from hiring your neighbor’s wife and daughter... You may not be obligated to help them in the way you help your own wife and daughter, but I would hope that you would refrain from infringing on their rights to help themselves.
The reply to this is cold and matter-of-fact: "No reason for you to keep asking your silly questions in all your comments. It is just boring." That commenter calls himself "The Bachelor," as though we may be surprised to learn that this precious gem of a man is still on the market!

Thus, the message is clear. Thinking about other people in the context of a political discussion is "silly" and "boring," whereas insisting on whichever policy most benefits you and yours regardless of how it might impact others, is...? Poignant and entertaining, I suppose? (What shocks me most about Anti-Gnostic's perspective here is that he is quite an outspoken man of Christian faith, and while I don't generally think it's fair to call someone a hypocrite when they fail to live up to their religious ideals, I surely expect a passionate writer of Orthodox Christian ideas to produce more morally compelling arguments than Policy X favors me and my family, so screw other people.)

Conclusion
No one should ever be surprised to learn that people act in their own self interest. But I would expect most people to agree that there is a difference between rational self interest and reckless, mean-spirited, and/or hedonistic self interest. In other words, I expect people to weigh their own interests more highly than those of other people; but I do not expect people to be psychopaths. Generally speaking, the expectation is that people care at least a little bit about what happens to other people - even strangers - when it comes to their own self interest.

This expectation is particularly high when it comes to politics, because political decisions don't very often come down to hurting Group A versus hurting Group B. More often, it's a question of doling out special benefits to Group A at the expense of hurting Group B, versus not doling out any special benefits to anyone.

Like a tennis match, one of those things is fair, equal, and manages to accomplish the stated goal of the US Constitution, while the other is a lot like trying to win the tennis match at any cost, regardless of the rules, merely because you want to be crowned the winner.

For more along the lines of this post, see my post on the virtue of temperance.