Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Self-Interest and the Public Good

There is always much talk about the "public good." Unfortunately, those doing the talking are often talking in code...and somehow the code usually involves spending lots of money.

The "public" doesn't just include the poor. It includes all of us...including Wall Street, agri-businesses, tobacco farmers, and everyone else with their hand out, or looking to accept the pork barrel spending of Congress, and willing to "ante up" for the privilege. But while everyone was quick to point to the abuses and failures in the welfare system, few people noticed that exactly the same effect was being produced further up the ladder. It's just a lot more expensive---and, until now, it was largely hidden from view.

If we're dealing with a small group---a family, a tribe, a town---we don't have the same problems. When everyone knows everyone else, there are fewer opportunities to shaft your neighbor, since there is a human face to the person you're cheating, and it's impossible to avoid detection, anyway. Once we move to larger communities, or big countries like the modern United States, then "taking" from someone else becomes an anonymous act. And if you can structure the law in such a way as to make theft of other people's money completely legal, it can become all too tempting to rationalize away any moral dilemmas about doing so. When legalized theft becomes the norm---and, I think, much of what we've seen on Wall Street and Capitol Hill qualifies---then the country is in big trouble. It leads to a sense of entitlement to the fruits of other people's labors, and crossing that threshold is a dangerous step for any country...especially a democracy.

There is nothing wrong with helping the poor, or trying to structure the government in such a way as to assist those in need. But when the system needs saints to work properly---presuming that no one would ever try to claim by right what they haven't really earned, and everyone is honest and honorable in their dealings with others---then it can't work on a large scale. That's why primitive communism can work in a family setting---or perhaps in a religious setting, where people are bound collectively together by a common faith---but it can never work as a basis for a complex society.

Any civilized nation needs to strike a balance between collective action and personal liberty. But there has always been a cycle to the lifespan of any democratic society in the past. And I'm afraid that without some far-sighted and resolute action, of a kind we haven't seen since our Founding and which I don't see on the horizon today, we may be nearing a major turning point...away from liberty, and toward dependence on a beneficent and all-knowing government. Sixty years ago, we called it "Big Brother," and it seemed a chilling portrait of a way of life that could never be; today, I'm not so sure.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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