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Self Interest, Virtue, and the Dilemma of the American Political Economy: Toward a Renewal of Ethical Care in American Civilization

The following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For additional details about this and upcoming conferences, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

This article argues that after more than two centuries, our system of justice is no longer functioning as intended by its founders. I argue that this breakdown can be ultimately traced to a philosophical dilemma at the heart of American civilization: the assumption that economic self-interest can by itself sustain ethical care for a common good. In treating economic freedom as a moral absolute, the American right has misconstrued the practical purpose of freedom and undermined justice and equality for all.

Part I: Freedom and Equality: The Core Ideas of American Civilization

In contrast to the ahistorical claim of libertarians that economic freedom should be treated as a moral value, the goal of the founders of the United States was very concrete: enabling most citizens to get basic economic needs met in peace and security. Free and open elections and a system of checks and balances would motivate the naturally more powerful to manage their own passions in ways that contributed to a common good. By contrast, in unchecked political systems that arose by the struggle for dominance among the powerful few, the de facto rulers lacked any motive to act in ways that were consistent with the interests of the average citizen. As Thrasymachus claims in Plato’s Republic, they habitually wrote laws that benefited themselves at the expense of everyone else.

The new system, which tied the interest of the strong to the average citizen, was paradoxical because it used the vice of self-interest to create a newly defined virtue: the maximization of utility. Justice can be defined as an arrangement that balances the interests of the many and few. In a political context, ethical care is conveyed by a disinterested love of the common good. In America, this common good is sustained by elected policy makers conferring the quality of justice on outcomes operationally grounded in a vice. Without this ethical care, the American arrangement risks being reduced to a play of selfish interests and unrestrained passions.

The reliance on self-interest in the American political economy is in contrast to the model that prevailed in pre-modern Europe. Prior to the Enlightenment, it was held that the citizens’ lives, individually and collectively, should be guided by values derived in the Bible. If the dilemma of the Middle Ages was to assume that the leaders of society were motivated by virtue, the dilemma at the heart of American civilization is the fragility of the assumption that the systemically sanctioned motive of self-interest alone can sustain an ethical society.

Part II: A Misunderstanding Economic Freedom and a Breach of Justice

A detailed discussion of the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics and Rand’s Objectivism is beyond the scope of this article. The most significant claim of Austrians and Randians is that the selfishness in economic pursuits is morally virtuous. While Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Smith neutrally observed that selfishness dominated political life, free-market radicals claim that selfishness is morally good. The attribution of deep moral purposes to express political values is not a harmless belief. To the extent that a movement is able to justify laissez-faire policies by treating economic freedom as if it were sacrosanct, justice and ethical care cannot be sustained.

In contrast to the libertarian claim that that economic freedom has a moral purpose, to let individuals obtain wealth, Adam Smith justified capitalism by the fact that it results in more wealth for the average citizen than other kinds of arrangements. Similarly, when Jeremy Bentham argued for a free market system, he did not refer to a moral right to earn great wealth. He argued that society’s total utility is maximized when self-interest is the basic organizing principle. American activists fail to grasp what the American founders knew: that we are not equal when it comes to the pursuit of wealth, privilege, and power.

The success of libertarians and Rand fanatics in redefining selfishness as a moral virtue has economically harmed average citizens. Tax rates on the most wealthy citizens are at historic lows, and where spending ought to be increased on social security and infrastructure upkeep, it has become politically very difficult for politicians to advocate for services that good societies routinely provide.

Part III: A Dilemma in American Civilization: Economic Self-interest vs. Ethical Care

Free market movement activists treat politics as if it were supposed to fulfill deep moral ends. The purpose of politics, however, is to reconcile the interests of the few and the many. By contrast, ethical values are actualized as a result of individuals acting out of care for others and the common good. Ethical values are not manifested in political and economic exchanges unless this care is present. The most important question for the contemporary public intellectual is: Why are influential American activists on the right attempting to ground moral purpose in values and structures intended to achieve political-economic goals? We saw the same phenomenon occur in the twentieth century when activists on the left advocated for Communism with a passion fit for the Crusades. Any explanation of recent attempts to remake our politics into a means of achieving deeply felt moral values must address a possible flaw in the foundation of the Enlightenment paradigm. There is good reason to wonder whether the contemporary crisis of American political activism owes to the scant attention paid to ethical care, or virtue, by our founders. What do I mean by this?

To understand the problem the American founders faced, we must ask ourselves: how did they think virtue would get cultivated and transmitted to the primary areas of social life, but especially within those areas where self-interest would play out (e.g., business and politics)? The response the modern political thinkers gave was something like this: If a society were to remain free, the citizens themselves would have to be the source of virtue. By contrast, in the pre-modern aristocratic model, the few nobles and clergy were supposed to be the source of virtue for the many citizens. While our founders felt that the citizens themselves would sustain virtue, they also observed that the average person cares mostly about getting basic economic needs met in peace.

We saw above that a system of checks and balances was intended to motivate the few powerful to enact policies that benefited all citizens. Embedded in this construct was a new definition of virtue: Public virtue is now defined solely in terms of behavior that benefits “all men” who are “equal” in their desire for material comfort and stability. The genius behind a system that Hobbes characterizes as “artificial” is not that it enshrines sacred values, e.g., freedom and equality. Its genius lies in the fact that it creates a causal nexus between self-interested motives that are naturally present in the few naturally more powerful, on the one hand, and the outcome of maximizing the utility of “all men,” on the other. The profit motive, when channeled properly, creates wealth that gets spread around more evenly than other arrangements.

The problem here needs further clarification. When the founders of the United States adopted self-interest as the sole operative incentive of the new system, the risk they took was two-fold: setting up a system conceived like a machine whose core principle was self-interest, and then assuming that this principle would be enough to sustain an ethical society. The assumption was that officials would enact public policy that positively impacted the common good not because they cared in their hearts about a common good, but because they wanted to attain or sustain their position at the top of a social hierarchy. To the extent that a linkage could be created and sustained between the motive of self-interest and the outcome of a measurable common good, the model could be said to be functioning as intended by the modern political thinkers. All this paper can do is point to a problem with this assumption, as there is not enough space to delve into it.

America’s public intellectuals have generally not confronted the tenuousness of the assumption that any meaningful understanding of public virtue could be sustained on the operational motive of material self-interest alone. A detached observer will in all likelihood assert the obvious: given the fact that self-interest narrowly construed is the primary operative motive in American political and economic life, it is unlikely that any robust notion of the common good will or can function as a motive for those who are successful in attaining powerful positions in either business or government in the United States. I will go so far as to argue that any robust understanding of a public good that has been present in American civilization in a de facto sense has owed, even if it no longer prevails, to the residual remains of a Judeo-Christian notion of care for the other, on the one hand, as well as to pressure from private citizens on public officials to enact policy in light of these residual moral and not political values, on the other.

Terence Hoyt received his PhD from Tulane University, 2000. He is an adjunct instructor in Albany, NY.

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