Humankind’s propensity to act selfishly is taken to be an important problem in political theory: an impediment, perhaps, to the utopian dreams of political philosophers. State-organized collectivization is often wrongly believed to provide a way out of the cycle of selfishness, but of course it doesn’t.
People remain human, motivated to act according to concrete material incentives, guided by self-interest. And it is natural that it should be so. People want to do what is best for themselves and their families. An entire country, made up of hundreds of millions of people, is too abstract a thing to occasion the kind of fellow feeling with which people regard their friends, families, and neighbors.
Compelled cooperation is a contradiction in terms. And it points to the unsolvable paradox of political authority and obligation: If people are so self-serving and double-dealing that they cannot cooperate voluntarily in the interests of the community or common good, then certainly empowering a small group in government to force collective action is doomed to degenerate into the worst kinds of corruption and misconduct. Political power, it turns out, serves its own interests, the interests of those who possess it.
The political class sells new accretions of government power with grandiose rhetoric, marked with frequent references to the common good. This is, as a rhetorical strategy, brilliant, for it appears to place the opponent of expanded government power in the position of resisting movement in the direction of the common good. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observes that the rulers of the past cynically and manipulatively leveraged this idea to preserve their power: “When the world was managed by a few rich and powerful individuals, these persons loved to entertain a lofty idea of the duties of man. They were fond of professing that it is praiseworthy to forget oneself and that good should be done without hope of reward.…” Of course, in a world controlled by power and privilege, they reaped all of the rewards and sacrificed little.
Since the times in which Tocqueville wrote, the patterns of political power have changed much less than the modern political observer might imagine. Our political rulers still appeal to the notion of our duty to society, to the idea that we must all sacrifice for the greater good. Nationalism made of the modern state a quasi-religion, centered on these notions of duty and public-spiritedness.
To Tocqueville, ultimately “man is brought home to himself by an irresistible force” — unchangeably focused first on his own well-being and interests — and the political system should simply accept that fact, turning to the question of its proper direction. It is the idea of individual rights that provides the limiting principle for one’s pursuit of his own interests. An individual may pursue those interests in any and all ways that do not violate the rights of another, that leave everyone else equally free.
This simple idea holds the potential to transform social, political, and economic life. “The doctrine of interests rightly understood,” explain Genauto Carvalho de Franca Filho and Rosanna de Freitas Boullosa, “is the conception that the realization of private interests is itself intimately linked to the realization of the common interest.” Interests coexist in this natural harmony only to the extent that the individual’s rights are appropriately limited. No single individual’s rights can be allowed to supersede those of any other individual; this is what granting positive rights — rights to specific goods and services — ultimately does, creating a race to the bottom through which ordinary human selfishness is not mitigated but aggravated. When the concept of rights is perverted, divorced from this guiding principle, conflicts of interest arise in all areas of social and economic life, everyone seeking opportunistically — and quite naturally, we must add — to milk the system, to maximize his individual gain.
Government depends vitally on various abuses of language, on euphemism, half-truths, and doublespeak. Authoritarian collectivism, for example, becomes “sharing” implemented for everyone’s benefit, on behalf of “the public.” That it is not sharing, that it does no such thing, and that “the public” is actually only a number (even if a large one) of individual persons are either facts not considered or facts considered unimportant. But we should care about such facts: factoring them into our judgments about politicians’ schemes would radically change our opinions about those schemes.