Or, the Paradox of Human Motives
Two years ago I read an editorial piece in the Huffington Post by economist Mohamed el-Erian, and I was struck by a phrase he used that, while it was only simple, straightforward English, was the essence of the kind of clarity and concision I always strive for in my writing. I was impressed enough by it, in fact, that I responded in the comments – this was when I could log into Huffington Post with an account created on their service; before they made the move to authenticating via social media only – that was the last straw for me, and I have hardly visited their weak-as-water celebrity-liberal site since, despite their featuring some really great guest features. That is somewhat beside the point, though – here is my response to el-Erian’s editorial:
Thank you, Mohamed el-Erian! Your phrase “fundamentally realign political incentives in a constructive manner” ought to become a new mantra. The mirage of left-right ideology created to keep Us at one another’s throats to distract us from the continuing plunder of our economy by the financial oligarchy would fall away from our vision if we could concentrate for a while on fundamentally realigning political incentives in a constructive manner. Most businesses are just scrabbling to stay alive, just as the people who depend on their products, services, jobs, and general economic activity are, while the people in your stratum of society (nothing personal, I suspect you are less greedy, and more practical than the ones driving this crazy plunder train), the CEOs of corporate America, who climbed to their lofty perches through boundless ambition and above-average skills and financial know-how, bend vast resources to skewing the political system of Our nation so they can co-opt its legislative, administrative, and judicial functions for their own greed-skewed agendas.
We are a nation of ambition, and that shouldn’t change. Self-interest and wanting more for your family, tribe, or community, however you define that community, is what drives humanity, and will drive us until we evolve into something else. Until that time, though, we must rein in the acquisitive impulse so that no one’s ambition is effectively boundless. That’s what a modern nation’s government does — directs the flow of everyone’s efforts so the whole nation, all its people, benefit from the gestalt of its economic, cultural, social, and political activities. Political incentives need to be crafted to match that harmonious goal.
There is an unrealistic trend among liberals to ground all our claims and demands in an appeal to altruistic morality exclusively. Even trying to unravel what “the greater good” is, in most situations, can be thorny at best, but of course if we want what is best for everyone, we have to consider the needs of others, and especially of those among us who have the most miserable lives, because that is the call of liberal philosophy, and those who are seriously in favor of the blessings of liberty know that if they are granted as a privilege, it isn’t truly liberty, but the mere illusion of it. In wrapping all our efforts and pronouncements in a pseudo-selfless paper, though, we forget, or try to ignore our own, and everyone’s legitimate self-interest. It is true that in the jungle of nature, “red in tooth and claw,” our individual and tribal self-interest leads inevitably to the excesses of wanton greed, and we have found that every liberalized society ultimately degenerates to the point where we begin to slide back that way, into our degraded primitive state, where more and more people fall into the practice of considering only their own narrow needs, and the needs those who are most like them – still, that doesn’t mean that when compassion, tolerance, and inter-cultural understanding are on the rise, these noble tendencies will extinguish our personal or group feelings of self-interest, or our very human urges to use our influence to protect those interests – and that is politics. Liberals need to learn, and to so educate reactionaries, that the scales of social justice don’t balance between opposing forces of altruism and greed, but rather between softening our natural political instincts with compassion and cultural tolerance, or not softening them.
This is why I still propose el-Erian’s phrase “fundamentally realign political incentives in a constructive manner” as a new mantra of those who would work toward a better world – politics is one of those paradoxes that reign supreme in human affairs – politics can get too political. When everyone around the table is convinced that their side is the only pure approach, nothing can be accomplished; only by admitting that we all have differing, though valid points of view and interests can we look at one another’s incentives constructively, and align ourselves to prosper mutually.