Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Politics of self-interest feeds the inner beast

Barring the start of World War III, we may never hear an Australian politician repeat John Fitzgerald Kennedy's unforgettable line, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country".

Nobility be hanged. There was a time when our leaders saw it as their job to bring out the best in their followers. These days, they see their best chance as pandering to our dark side - our fears, our weaknesses, our selfishness.

These days, self-centredness not only comes naturally, it's officially encouraged. On what basis should you decide which politician to support? The one that's offering you the best deal, of course.

Why do our leaders have such a low opinion of our motivations? Perhaps for the same reason people who lie a lot always expect other people to be lying. Despite their protestations to the contrary, most politicians seem motivated less by a burning desire to make the world a better place than by ambition for personal advancement. They simply assume we are like they are.

Then there's the influence of economists. The doctrine of economic rationalism not only assumes self-interest to be normal and altruism to be non-existent, it sanctifies self-interest as a civic virtue.

Adam Smith, founder of modern economics, said a lot of noteworthy things, but few are quoted more than this: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages."

Be as selfish as you like because selfishness is what makes the economy work.

But here's a balancing quote from the great man that's much less often repeated: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."

There are two sides to our nature; we do have our "better angels" as Abraham Lincoln put it, but at present our lesser selves are in the ascendancy.

Perhaps another influence on the politicians is their resort to the techniques of marketing to further their pursuit of power. Marketers have no hesitation in appealing to our envy, lust or greed.

In their world, use of the word "indulgence" is taken to be enticing, not a condemnation. "You deserve it" and "because you're worth it", advertisers assure us. My favourite is an ad for a cinema candy bar: "in the dark, no one can see you". Go ahead, guts yourself.

Marketers use focus groups to test products and make sure they're giving the customers exactly what they want. Politicians use them to make sure they're telling voters exactly what they want to hear.

At least since John Howard's last days, people in focus groups have been complaining about the rising cost of living. Really? That's a new one. When the most people can do is complain about the cost of living it's a sign they've got nothing bigger to worry about. I suspect it's the product of our having gone 20 years without a severe recession. When you're worried about keeping your job, you don't complain about the cost of living.

And yet both sides of politics are perpetually echoing back to the electorate their professed concern about how tough times are. Tony Abbott's remarkably successful scare campaign against the carbon tax - it's actually not half as bad as the goods and services tax, and certainly far less disruptive than the effect of the high dollar on manufacturing and tourism - preys on people's worries about the cost of living.

When Howard was introducing the GST a lot of people's attitude was: "I don't like the sound of it one bit, but if you're insisting on it I suppose it must be in the best interests of the country." Much the same could be said of the carbon tax, yet far fewer people are saying it - nor are they being encouraged to think that way.

As it's understood by scientists, our preoccupation with our own interests usually extends to the protection of our own family. But there seems little sign of concern for the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren in the carbon tax debate. We've been encouraged to focus only on our immediate worries about balancing the household budget.

But for unbridled selfishness there could surely be no more egregious example than the success the licensed clubs have had in stirring their members' opposition to the Gillard government's reluctant championing of compulsory pre-commitment on poker machine use.

If ever there was an action that could be said to be "un-Australian", it's profiting from the addiction of gamblers and all the misery caused to them and their families. The killer statistic is this: according to the Productivity Commission, about 15 per cent of regular poker machine users contribute about 40 per cent of all the money put through pokies.

So the whole edifice of the licensed club industry rests heavily on the exploitation of a small minority of their own members. All the cheap meals and shows, all the grants to local sporting groups - much of that money is coming from the pockets of the spouses and children of problem gamblers.

But those fighting to keep their cheap meals mustn't feel guilty. You're only doing what our politicians, economists and advertisers urge you to do: putting your own interests ahead of other people's, including the less fortunate.