How do we restore our republic? We restore the virtue of enlightened self-interest.
In a free society the good of the individual should be theoretically inseparable from the long-term good of society, polity, nation. When individuals in a free society tend to be virtuous and enlightened, there is the potential for the society to be open and dynamic, the economy to be prosperous, and the government to be stable.
Modern lexicon is unable to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest. Furthermore, rarely does anyone expound further to qualify a behavior as reflective of enlightened self-interest, or what is in the long-term good of each individual. The decay of the language is a sign of the death of virtue.
What nurtures virtue in a free republic? The allowance for natural constraints in human affairs, and the removal of societal constraints on virtuous behavior. There should be natural rewards for productive behavior, and natural punishments for unproductive behavior; to clarify, what is deemed “natural” compensation for labor is adjudged by other men’s demand for a good or service.
This is not to say goods or services men freely choose are conducive to the long-term best interest of the individual. The sum of government should be that men (viz. mankind) are sheltered from injustice: the theft of the fruits of his labor, the silencing of his social or political speech, incarceration of his person without cause, and the violations of those other rights so wisely embedded in our previous generations’ legal order. Men should not be protected from themselves or from nature itself. Man is not perfectible, and neither is government.
Ideally, men should be informed of the perils of self-destructive behavior; but the error of The Enlightenment is entrusting this task to a state-run education system. The Internet is a reproof to those who believe knowledge must be institutionalized by a state-adoring vanguard in academia. For all its defects, the Internet shines above all the achievements of modern academia.
But as the Internet demonstrates, free choice comes at the expense of a unified culture and a mainstream-accepted moral code. The modern right and left are united in their disdain for a non-uniform culture. While the American left preaches about “diversity,” ideologically they are as lock-step as any movement in history. The right is accepting of individualism, as long as it doesn’t clash with Christianity.
So my proposition to unfetter the individual may be ideologically supported by quite a few; but in practice, most people are uncomfortable with a society where their belief systems and morality are not reinforced all around them. As someone who has traveled abroad, I confess I find encountering the strange to be fascinating and intellectually stimulating . Most people are not so inclined. The goal of the essay is thus to persuade people to give up their personal demands for uniformity and conformity. The operationalization for how virtue is developed and sustained is the process of individual learning and non-interference by the state in the intergenerational transfer of knowledge.
What our contemporary government has done is sever the cords tying self-interest to enlightened self-interest; and thus have stymied individuals from learning what is in each’s long-term best interest and what is in the long-term best interest of the republic. The government has devolved society into a match between competing factions, whose referee, government, has a direct interest in mediating between such factions; so much so, the government even seeks to create new factions using ideology propagated through the education system!
Our schools and universities aggravate the divisiveness by teaching individuals they are victims by mere circumstance of their existence; and their “labor” in a free market (or an economy where force is constrained) is akin to enslavement. Both government and those who are disposed to feel powerless over one’s situation are interested in removing the barriers to taking remuneration for what they perceive is their inherently unjust plight. These barriers are the institutions that make it possible for people to act in their enlightened self-interest. Ideally, people’s pursuit of self-interest should be bounded by laws, such as those protecting private property, inviolable contracts, and caveat emptor. These institutions act to generally channel men’s energies in productive directions; in other words, they foster enlightened self-interest.
In contrast, politicians inhabit their offices for generations on end, and “greedy” Wall Street bankers scheme to find ways to coax politicians to underwrite their risk-taking behavior. When the inevitable collapse of their pyramid scheme comes, the media faintly condemn the politicians and demonize the businessman. Yet the media will ultimately endorse the unnatural and immoral behavior by advocating more theft from productive individuals to clean up the mess as prudent “policy.”
In a world of nihilism or principle-less pragmatism, there is no virtue; the productive are punished and the unproductive are rewarded; the honest are punished and the dishonest are rewarded; those who mind their own business are punished and the viciously power-hungry are rewarded.
Individuals can now receive compensation from the government without putting anything into the economy; or are subsidized by the government for providing unnecessary or even market-antagonistic goods and services. This is an unnatural and demoralizing situation; and any men who attempt to restore natural constraints on human behavior are blamed for those natural constraints themselves. The long-term, though not short-term, effect of restoring natural constraints on behavior is the resuscitation of virtue among most, but not all men. But the further most men are separated from natural constraints, and thus, virtue, the more painful those natural constraints’ inevitable re-imposition and the more chaotic the societal response.
The legal matrices in American society are unnatural; the laws incentivize sloth, greed, envy, ignorance, recklessness, and theft. We were a nation of laws, which attempted to bring out the best, the most noble, the most aspirational side of men’s character. This state of affairs was accomplished by pitting ambition against ambition in government and likewise in the economy, while opening up a space for free communication in civil society. It was hoped the last would provide a check on the former.
In our current state of affairs, we see the elites in the government coalescing into a uniform oligarchy, a political cartel of sorts. This burgeoning cartel has joined forces with a predominately consolidated economy: the monetary-banking cartel known as the Federal Reserve, immense state-friendly corporations, and so-called public-private partnerships in the home ownership industry. The consolidation of government and economy has been intellectually approved by the state-subsidized sophists in the education industry. The aesthetics of consolidation, “unity” and “utopia,” have been embraced by the artistic community through the aegis of the movie and music industry. Lastly, and perhaps most tragically, the consolidation of the governmental, the economic, the educational, and informational in the hands of oligarchs has been approved by a nearly-cartelized news media.
Far from crossing into some new progressive political frontier, the totalization of American life would be a return to the absolutisms of the past. It would be a reversal of The Enlightenment ideal of limited government facilitating self-government, and the re-establishment of the arbitrary rule of particular men – only now abetted and strengthened by modern technology.
Where there is now government, there was once personal responsibility. What constrained the foibles of men was an economic and monetary system that diffused the scale on which personal miscalculation could affect the economy at large; thereby allowing for individual flexibility and more general opportunity. The reduced scale and scope of government limited the attractiveness for the selfishly ambitious to carry out wrong-doing for personal gain, and the damage a small cadre of professional deceivers and con-men could wreak on the polity. Yet today, many are obsessed with a drive for “unity” for its own sake. This only heightens the danger that the misjudgment and actions of a few have consequences for those who were not party to the decision.
As people feel increasingly powerless in such a world where the actions of those in far away places have disastrous effects, they places their hopes in mass movements, usually populist and “democratic” in nature. Thus, a surprising number of people are willing to trade our Constitutional republic for a chaotic democracy, a form of government well-known historically to presage tyranny. Democracies make self-interest a struggle for power and wealth necessarily coming at the expense of others; while Constitutional republics foster enlightened self-interest, which encourages men to create wealth and allows others to tap into that wealth-creation process. Democracies are zero-sum, while Constitutional republics based on enlightened self-interest are sum-gain, given properly virtuous behavior codified in a set of laws.
We were such a nation of laws. We are becoming a nation of men.