Shared Values and Common Goals
Part One: Coming to grips with Self-Interest
We Americans are suffering under the most divisive period in the last one hundred and sixty years of our history. The controversy between North and South over the issue of slavery reached its peak with the election of Abraham Lincoln in eighteen sixty. His election prompted the Southern states to attempt to secede from the union in order to preserve slavery. The 2024 election may be almost as consequential as the eighteen sixty election, but the battle lines are not so clearly drawn.
Most people in the Antebellum South didn’t own any slaves and only a tiny fraction owned Gone-With-The-Wind style plantations. Most of the two hundred and sixty thousand or so Confederate soldiers that died defending slavery probably never owned a slave. But most of the politicians that led them into war probably did own slaves. Secession was more in the self-interest of those rich plantation owners and their politicians than that of the poor farmers or ordinary workers that made up the foot soldiers.
I don’t know how those non-slave owning Southerners were whipped into a such a frenzy to charge up Cemetery Ridge but it probably included anger and hate against the Northerners that were intent on changing the South. But fomenting anger and hate isn’t limited to the distant past. In a recent interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Republican pollster Frank Luntz commented about the hate and anger of the participants against each other in the focus groups he holds to gauge voter reaction on various issues.
Our political leaders are driving a wedge between Americans because that is to their political advantage. But most Americans on both the right and left share many of the same values. The Associated Press reports that a recent poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago found that “while most Americans agree on the core principles underlying American democracy, they no longer recognize that the other side also holds those values.” The report goes on to say, “The findings reflect a phenomenon known as “affective polarization,” in which disagreements are based on animosity and a lack of trust instead of an actual debate over values or policy.”
Before we can delve into our shared values that should unite us, we need to investigate why it is in the interest of our leaders to drive us apart. Many people believe that self-interest is the driving force of greedy capitalists who ignore the common good for their own enrichment. But everyone is driven by self-interest. Even the ascetic hermit in the wilderness has an interest in finding food and shelter or else he will perish.
When we look at the issues that we believe divide us, we have to look for the self-interest on the two sides of the dispute. One such divisive issue in today’s political discourse is the appropriate role of government. One side believes that for-profit businesses ignore the common good in order to create more profit and that government can provide the same service more equitably in the interest of the common good. But the bureaucrats that operate government and the politicians that direct the policies of government are also driven by self-interest.
For example, a group of politicians create a policy that will benefit a segment of the population, let’s say a welfare payment to assist single mothers to feed their kids. How can anybody be against such a kind and generous policy? Of course, such a government program is in the interest of the sponsoring politicians because it costs them nothing and the recipients may be inclined to thank them with their votes at the next election. The program is also in the interest of the bureaucrats managing the program because a lot of the cost of the program goes toward the administration of the program and not to the supposed beneficiaries. But it is not in the interest of the politicians or the bureaucrats that the program actually be successful. A successful welfare policy would be one that would eliminate the need for welfare. That the single mother gets educated or married and thus gains the ability to rise out of poverty and no longer need welfare to survive. Such an outcome would not be in the interest of the politicians or the bureaucrats.
A good example of conflicting self-interests is the controversial issue of school choice. Teachers’ unions are virulently opposed to school choice saying public money should go to public schools. It is in the self-interest of the teachers’ unions that public money go to pay union member teachers that pay union dues to the union. Delivering a quality product in the form of well-educated children is only incidental to the self-interest of the teachers’ unions.
Adam Smith showed that self-interest can serve the common good in a free market featuring healthy competition that gives consumers choices. Choice allows them to select the combination of price and utility that meets their needs. That is why teachers’ unions are opposed to competition from alternatives such as charter schools, private schools or home schooling.
Self-interest may be a problem but self-interest is ubiquitous. Almost everyone acts in their own interest most of the time. Monopoly is the problem. Businesses like to be monopolies because they can increase prices and minimize costs in order to increase profits. The self-interested actions of consumers can be ignored. Competition gives consumers options that serve their self-interest over the self-interest of the business owners. Our defense against monopoly is competition, not government. Because government is a monopoly. When we have options we care little about the self-interested motivations of others. When we lack options we become dependent on the goodwill of others, and the others are not always good.
But that does not mean we should get rid of government. We need government. Self-interest can become extreme and harm the interest of others. Government can intervene and protect citizens when self-interest is driven to extremes by greed or lust. This is the rule of law that limits actions that harm the interests of others. But we must remember that those applying the rule of law also have their own interests. An oppressive rule of law can frustrate the interest of citizens as much as no rule of law.
We need government to play its proper role, just as we need the private sector to play its proper role. All the multiple institutions that make up our complex American society, the federal state and local governments, public corporations, private corporations and small businesses, professional associations, social clubs, charitable organizations, NGOs, churches, synagogues and mosques plus the American people are composed of an accumulation of individuals each with their own self-interested goals. And each has a role to make our society work. And right now it is not working.
So, if we are all driven by our own self-interest how can any society survive?
Throughout history most societies were dominated by the self-interest of a few powerful people, a king, an emperor or plain old dictator. The nobles, courtesans and warriors subordinated their self-interest to that of the leader but imposed their self-interest over the lower ranking people in such society. The lower ranking people had find the food, clothing and shelter in their self-interested struggle to survive wherever they could.
But America was founded on different principles. The Declaration of Independence not only declared our country’s independence from Great Britain, but it also declared the independence of the people living in our country from excessive government. Each American has the unalienable right to pursue his or her own happiness – happiness based on their own self-interest.
How can America survive if we each are pursuing an American Dream that is aligned with our own self-interest? I think there are three factors that are critical to creating a viable American society that gives all Americans the opportunity to seek their American Dream.
First, as Adam Smith described in his second book, The Wealth of Nations, people pursuing their own self-interest can also serve the common good. A free market, with a multitude of people offering goods, services or labor of varying quality at various prices, can provide for a wide variety of the necessities of life that meet the self-interest of all the people. This isn’t because all those people offering goods, services and labor are nice and are doing so out of the goodness of their heart. They are offering goods, services and labor to provide necessities for their own self-interest. The free market works pretty well (as if there was an invisible hand guiding its actions) as long as people follow the agreed rules of the market. Maintaining a competitive market that is free and fair is one legitimate role for the government.
Second, Smith described in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, not only are all humans motivated by self-interest, but we also we have a natural empathy for the situation of other people. Humans are social animals and we need this natural empathy in order to be able to live together. We like other people and, what’s more, we want to be liked by other people. It is in our self-interest to be liked by other people (that’s part of the pursuit of happiness) and therefore it is in our self-interest to conduct ourselves so that other people will like us. And it is also in our self-interest to live in a just and prosperous society so we conduct ourselves in a manner that will create such a just and prosperous society. This is self-interest rightly understood.
The third factor is shared values and common goals. Survey after survey (such as the NORC study) show that most Americans share the same values. The values may vary from survey to survey. Sometimes they change the wording or phrasing. Many of these values are based on the Enlightenment philosophy that inspired the Founders at the start of the United States. Some are based on our largely Judeo-Christian heritage. Some (such as self-reliance, the nuclear family and the value of hard work) were even labeled as part of “white culture” by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. But these are American values widely shared by most Americans, even those of different cultures or ethnicities. Many of the immigrants coming to America do so because those values are lacking in their home countries.
The divisiveness that we face arises from radical elements on the left and right that do not share those American values and are attempting to replace those values with values foreign to our free and open society. They will try and convince you that these are the real American values. They aren’t. They will try and tell that they are better than traditional values. They aren’t. Keep in mind that the leaders of these radical movements are acting in their own self-interest. Not yours. And they will try to frustrate your ability to achieve your own unique American Dream and replace it with a dream of their own making.
Those radical elements have infiltrated the traditional Republican and Democratic parties and are trying to implement policies consistent with their beliefs but which are not shared by most Americans. This is why seventy percent of Americans feel that the country is going in the wrong direction. In this commentary I have framed the problem confronting America as I understand it. I hope that my ideas strike a chord within you. In future commentaries I will delve more deeply into some of those core values and come up with some policy suggestions that Americans can agree on.