Politics & Policy

The Problem of Selfishness

Political self-interest is no less selfish than economic self-interest.

Barack Obama’s moral exhortations are almost without exception unseemly. When the nation was giving him the hairy eyeball over his longtime association with the crackpot racist grotesque Jeremiah Wright, Senator Obama responded by lecturing the nation about racism, as though we, rather than he, had a problem. On the eve of Thanksgiving, the president, a guest of Magic Johnson’s, chided the nation on how “selfishly” it conducts its politics.

That’s our president: sensitive to criticism but immune to irony.

Barack Obama is if not the most selfish man in American public life then a contender for the title and a shoo-in hall-of-famer. Along with such titans as Donald Trump and Alec Baldwin, he is the possessor of an epic sense of self, a Jörmungandr of ego reaching around the world to embrace — what else? — himself. The man is mired in self, positively suffocating in self: self-importance, self-regard, self-aggrandizement. Though one wonders how much substance there is within the balloon of the presidential ego: This is a man who has, after all, conscientiously reduced himself to a logo and a slogan, not a man for all seasons but a man for a single season ending in early November. The Barack Obama made available for public consumption is, like those Shepard Fairey “hope” posters seen around election time, a millimeter deep but ubiquitous. Whether the private Obama is a more substantial entity is the subject of some speculation.

What could it possibly mean to be lectured on selfishness by a man whose entire career has been dedicated to no cause other than the cause of himself? “Selfishness” has been conflated with materialism and greed, but the literal meaning of the word is excessive devotion to one’s self and one’s interests. To be unselfish is to be ready to give up that which one holds most dear; for some men, that is money, but what is money to a president of the United States, who knows that in retirement he can support himself in ducal style with one day’s work a month at Bill Clinton rates, in princely style with two days’ work, and in imperial style with three? Money is an abstraction to a retired president. But the thing that he really cares about — power — Barack Obama guards in a fashion more miserly than that of any mythical dragon watching his horde. That the president is so haughty about the prospect of negotiating with his rivals in the House and the Senate comes as no surprise to his advisers, whose opinions he holds in equal contempt: “I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters, I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. . . . I’m a better political director than my political director.” And he has some thoughts about generosity of spirit he would like to share.

When you think like that, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the public good and one’s own political good. In extreme form this is megalomania. In less extreme form, it leads to things like passing health-care bills either not knowing what they contain or knowing and not caring, on the theory that any shortcomings can be worked out post facto — which is, if you think about it, only another way of saying that the content of the law is not important, only the transference of power from the legislative to the executive branch, from the people’s house to the president. Put another way: This means that adding to presidential power is by definition in the public interest, so long as the president is Barack Obama. But to a man like our president, that does not look like selfishness; after all, he is not trying to make himself rich, and if he’s trying to make himself powerful, he has what he believes are impeccable reasons for doing so. At some point, though, he must, if he has not entirely lost the capacity for introspection, meditate upon the fact that he was forced to lie to the public and bribe his colleagues to get his health-care agenda passed. For a man with a more robust capacity for self-reflection, that would temper his belief in the identity of his own political good and the public good.

The notion that the pursuit of power is somehow less selfish than the pursuit of money found its way into Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium, in which the pope rehearses some ancient Catholic criticisms of market liberalism that have excited anti-capitalists throughout the world, who are always eager for any scrap of economic encouragement from an institution and a man with views they otherwise detest utterly. The pope writes critically of what he calls a “selfish ideal”:

One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. . . . They reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.

As the chief executive of the largest and most successful institution in human history, Pope Francis naturally takes an institutionalist view of things; like all of his predecessors, at least so far as I am aware, he fails to appreciate that the actual result of the free-market economy is not to transfer power away from states to corporations but from states and corporations to people. The “truly human purpose” he seeks may be found in many millions of households in poor countries, where bellies are more full and roofs more secure than they were a generation ago, owing mainly to the expansion of global trade. The pope writes that it is an error to believe that “economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” This is true. But then, neither will the building of churches, legislatures, or courthouses. People still have to be good. But it is easier to feed the Lord’s sheep where food is plentiful.

The pope is a very good man, and what very good men have in common with very bad men is that they tend to assume that the world is full of men who are similar to themselves. Thus, his rhetorical reliance upon “states, charged with vigilance for the common good,” an aspirational sentiment rather than a factual statement. States should act in the public good, but there is that problem of selfishness, which everybody sees in the market but overlooks in politics.

Political self-interest is no less selfish than is economic self-interest, and states have something more dangerous than even the most ruthless operator in a free market: coercion. Pope Francis might consider the case of President Obama, whose vision of the public good includes millions of federally subsidized abortions, and ask himself whether “vigilance for the common good” explains what politics is or what he wishes it were. The longstanding Catholic skepticism of economic liberalism is one of the last remnants of the Church’s skepticism of liberalism in toto, Rome having given up explicit denunciations of things such as the freedom of conscience (cf. Ubi Primum) some time ago.

It is natural that a man who sees the world the way Barack Obama sees it would view all power relationships as zero-sum: If somebody else gets a little more power, he has a little less. But there is no reason for Pope Francis to take that view. If ever the Church’s economic thinkers get over their 19th-century model of the relationship between state and market, they might appreciate that spontaneous orders and distributed economic forces could produce some truly radical outcomes in a world in which a billion or more people shared a vision of justice and mercy. The pope’s job in part is to supply that vision; unhappily, the default Catholic position seems to be delegating economic justice to the state, under the mistaken theory that its ministers are somehow less selfish than are the men who build and create and trade for a living rather than expropriate. Strange that a man who labored under the shadow of Perón has not come to that conclusion on his own.  

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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