Sunday, November 24, 2013

Could selfishness be a good thing?

About a month ago, a small article caught my eye, the results of a survey about Libertarian political identity. Here is the Reuters report. I remember some sort of op-ed riffing off of these findings, but I can't locate it now, or at least I can't pull one up from the wells of political opinion to which I normally refer. The basic upshot of the report is that libertarians tend to be well-off, non-Hispanic white males. If I remember it correctly, there was some current of journalistic opinion using this trend as a means of criticizing the libertarians (but perhaps I'm exaggerating).

Though I'm not a libertarian, I'm intrigued.

One libertarian I listen to often is Clark Howard. Far and away, he is my favorite financial literacy guru to listen to. He usually doesn't stray into politics, and when he does he strives to do so objectively. His approach to the Affordable Care Act (which one might think to be anathema to libertarians) is a good example of his approach. I do appreciate the humility and compassion by which Howard approaches his craft, an approach that defies a too-simple portrayal of what libertarians believe.

Is it possible that libertarians share a view on politics with one another because they come from a common position of privilege and wealth? Probably. I wonder, however, if this is necessarily a bad thing.

I also wonder if Libertarians have a goal of becoming a rival to the two major political parties. Perhaps they represent a group that looks to be wooed election-by-election by candidates who may wear the R or D label, the L label, or no label at all. And as such, they can exercise influence more like smaller parties do in multi-party political systems, where coalition governments are the norm.

Selfish political advocacy, tempered by humility and objectivity, might be an antidote to our stalemated political times. Have the past few years been colored by politicians who think their point of view, if it prevailed, would be best for everybody. Is that what has led to the political brinksmanship of the past year or so? Would the shut down have occurred if politicians would have looked for common interests shared across party lines rather than slippery slopes that spelled the end of capitalism or democracy.

If I were to sit down in a room with 37-year-old married dads, I think we would have a lot in common with one another on political matters. Our political views is shaped by what's most important to us relative to where and how we live. I think Lincoln once said that "where you stand depends on where you sit" (though it seems the world wide web attributes that to Nelson Mandela, and most websites debunk the notion Lincoln said it himself). A coalition of 37-year-old dads would probably want good schools, a tolerant society, a fair chance for my kids to get ahead, and less expensive college tuition. Are any of those things bad on their face? No, but getting those things does involve some cost to someone somewhere.

I can do this with other cohorts in which I see myself: Lutherans, teachers, history nuts, economics thinkers, and so on and so on.

Is it a problem if my views change over the next decade? Does that make me hypocritical. I don't think so.

Would politics be bettered by individuals coming to think of themselves as parts of small cohorts, exchanging ideas and engaging in compromise-driven trade-offs to solve political dilemmas? Perhaps. I'm sure it would be better off if individuals stopped thinking that what's good for them is good for everyone, and instead accepted the fact that 27-year-olds might look at a situation differently than a 47-year-old, but that on some issues there is a middle ground.

I guess I'm calling for pragmatism, which is in short supply in Washington. Selfishness blended with humility and compassion might seem paradoxical, but I think it could work when looking at political issues.  

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