Self-interest (noun) 1. regard for one's own interest or advantage, especially with disregard for others. --Random House Dictionary
Lost in the blizzard of stories last week about Whitey Bulger was a tale of governmental meltdown which shows what can happen when self-interest trumps what is best for the whole community. Last Friday, Connecticut faced into the reality of laying off 7,500 state workers after unions there rejected a cost saving contract which had been carefully negotiated by Republican Governor Daniel Malloy and passed by his state’s General Assembly. Malloy had pulled off a seeming political miracle earlier this year: getting givebacks from workers while also enacting the largest one year tax increase in the state’s history. In doing so Malloy avoided a wholesale gutting of governmental services, everything from public colleges and universities, to state police, nursing homes, and health care for the poor and the elderly.
It was a prudent move: some tax hikes, some program cuts, and a two year salary freeze, with guaranteed future salary increases for unionized state workers. What Malloy’s budget asked for was fair: equal sacrifice by all and shared responsibility by all. Self-interest, as in what’s in it for “me”, gave way to a larger interest, that which is best for “we”. As in what is best for everyone, not just one group or one constituency or one demographic. Taxpayers gave a little. Unions gave a little. Folks compromised for the common good. Malloy’s was a gusty move and might have been a powerful example to Washington’s current game of chicken around federal budget cuts and raising the federal debt limit. If the Nutmeg State can do it, maybe Uncle Sam can too. But then the unions said “NO!” and it all fell apart. Pink slips will start going out this week. Ironically self-interest on the part of a few workers will now result in their fellow union workers getting the boot. So much for solidarity.
There are times in this life when self-interest makes sense and benefits the many. Capitalism’s lifeblood is self-interest and most of the time such single-minded energy results in amazing benefits like jobs and economic growth and opportunity. Our society enthusiastically encourages young people to pursue their dreams, their self-interests, the hope being that when an individual triumphs, it also enriches the community. Think of inventors, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs. But here’s another truth. Unbridled self-interest, slavish worship at the altar of “me”, finally drags down the whole and is in fact a civic cancer. A community is no community unless everyone pitches in.
For what is a healthy family other than a group of people putting aside self-interest for the good of the other? In churches, synagogues and mosques, folks of faith gather together to serve each other and God and the world, not just themselves. Soldiers certainly put aside self-interest and risk their limbs and lives for a greater good: the nation. Millions of volunteers give time, money and talent to build up the world. Ultimately for any human enterprise to thrive, women and men and children must put aside the selfish for the selfless, must think not just of themselves but also of the other too. As the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King preached, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
When government functions best, it always seeks to strike this balance between the individual and the community, rights and responsibilities, the greater good and the singular good. At a time when so many shared crises are roiling away--the tepid economy, the wars, the debt, the environment, our children’s future—we need to be able work together again as citizens. We need to grow up in a way as a nation, to get out of the sandbox of self-interest and out of the blame game and instead begin to do the hard work of compromise and sacrifice. Of seeking the national interest and the common good, not just self interest.
Founding father Benjamin Franklin put it best. In the moments before each of the rebellious colony’s representatives signed the Declaration of Independence some 235 years ago this coming July, he warned them, “Gentlemen we must all hang together or surely we will all hang together.”
On this July 4th , as so much in the United States of America hangs in the balance and continues unresolved, let this be our civic prayer: to seek more than self-interest alone.