Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Shout out to the Individual

I'll admit it: I was in love before I ever met Ayn. It's in the genes.

I'm enjoying a slow re-read of Atlas Shrugged at the moment. It has an apropos message considering the current state of political affairs. Apocalyptophiles among us would argue that in this election year, we're at the inflection point between the individual and the collective. Me? I take a slightly softer line. We're at an inflection point. There have and will be many.

Some people wish they were members of the Fight Club or the '27 Yankees. Me, I wish I was in the Class of '43 aka the Collective. The human animal is driven by self-interest. Period. Or as the Objectivists say it (via Wikipedia):

A society is, by Objectivist standards, moral to the extent that individuals are free to pursue their goals ... mutual consent being the defining characteristic of a free society.
To take it one step further: A maximally happy society would be one in which each member maximizes his own happiness (as long as his actions don't decrease others' happiness).

To restate that in economic terms: The only way to successfully maximize society's gross utility is for each member to maximize his own.

Sounds pretty evil and selfish, right? Uh, Right. I'm as bemused and perplexed as Ayn and Alan when people disagree with this obvious truism. In fact, I secretly believe that everyone agrees with it, but just doesn't like the logical consequence to society. We fear that a society of selfish people would be one where the strong take advantage of the weak. They fear that man's basest animal nature would lead to a least-common-denominator unravelling of society. They counter that in today's enlightened, progressive, cutting-edge society, we all must be persuaded to take from ourselves a bit and hand to the lesser among us. Equality is their driving aim.

To them, I'd like to offer my own consolation: self-interest is not mutually exclusive with the collective good. Much of the First World has gotten so wealthy that people have begun to feel they don't need their community. Frankly, they don't know what they're missing. I know from personal experience that people can improve their own happiness by helping others.

My argument doesn't just rest on feel-good charity. The central paradox of human motivation is that the most selfish thing we can do is to gain a sense of place in their community: a sense of being needed and valuable gives one a deeply satisfying sense of individual security.

Perhaps I should call this the theory of reverse enlightened self-interest.

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