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Hullabaloo


Thursday, November 06, 2008

 
Self Interest

by digby

Reader Bill sent me an email this morning that set me to thinking about something very fundamental:


I got up early and caught some of the discussion with Lawrence O'donnell, Chrystia Freedland, and Joe Scar as to why people who make tons of money still voted for Obama.

Well, for most people, their lives are not governed by the tax code. It ignores a world view of a social compact, and a certain amount of self interest too.
Fairness, tolerance, decency are part of the human deal too.


Philosophers and political theorists have argued about this forever, so I obviously don't have any fresh insights. But I do feel that I understand this phenomenon. People who have money are like everyone else in that they come in all sizes and political persuasions. But they often have the luxury of looking beyond their immediate personal needs to the bigger picture and I think many of them realize that their comfortable life depends upon maintaining a stable society where there isn't horrible poverty, where the infrastructure is modern and working, where crime isn't rampant and where their kids can breath clean air. These are things they cannot pay for as individuals and are willing to kick in in order to insure that the nice life they have, and their children will likely have, continues.

If they are entirely rational in their thinking, they can even sit down and run a spreadsheet which gives them a cost benefit analysis of those broad social expenses and they'll realize that they come out far ahead. The more instinctive among them just know that they don't want to live in place that isn't fair, tolerant and decent and they are willing to pay a share of their comfortable incomes to make that more likely.

I've always thought this pseudo-libertarian "self-interest" argument was a crock for anyone but the most pie-in-the-sky Randian. It's in your "self-interest" to live in a well functioning society --- and that requires an organizing principle and community action like government to achieve. The only argument against taxation that really makes any sense is the one that says government is somehow intrinsically incapable of doing anything right. In a country that was founded on democracy, there's something about that which doesn't scan very well --- after all, we are the ones who choose the government. It's an indictment of the people themselves.

The only way you can persuade a majority to ignore their collective interest in ensuring a decent community is to stroke their tribal lizard brains into believing that their money is going to help an "enemy" rather than their own. That's why it has worked so well in racist societies.

For those government helps directly, whether it's through educational opportunities or unemployment insurance or health care for their kids and elderly parents, the benefits are obvious. But there's nothing unusual about financially comfortable people also being willing to pay for a decent society in which to live and work and bring up their kids. The unnatural ones are those who think they can live a good life without contributing to such things. Apparently, they think they can live inside a castle and pull up the drawbridge behind them, leaving all the ugliness outside. And that is the perfect, time tested recipe for revolution. It's not exactly the smart move for the long haul.


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