Friday, April 22, 2011

Well Being and Common Welfare

An essay in Vanity Fair by a leading economist focuses on the great inequality between the rich and poor in America where "1% of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation's income."

Indeed, "While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top."

The writer sees a growing problem in this inequity and compares it to past and present day oligarchies. "The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late."

He refers to Alexis de Tocqueville, a classic liberal political thinker, who saw the genius of American society in his book Democracy in America, 1835, which included the concept of “self-interest properly understood.”

"The last two words were the key. Everyone possesses self-interest in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! Self-interest “properly understood” is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest—in other words, the common welfare—is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being. Tocqueville was not suggesting that there was anything noble or idealistic about this outlook—in fact, he was suggesting the opposite. It was a mark of American pragmatism. Those canny Americans understood a basic fact: looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul—it’s good for business."

The essay encourages one to reflect about our own self interest and the dangers of thinking too inwardly and selfishly.