The New National Alternative to Self Interest

Economic and political systems pursuing rational self interest can produce irrational results.  The dysfunction of these systems evident since 2008 has established the critical need for establishing an alternative to the ethos of self interest which permeates much of our social, economic and moral theory.  In Osawatomie Kansas in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt proposed a narrative of the common good for the country, calling it the New Nationalism.   In the same city today, President Barack Obama called for the same alternative to the logic of social Darwinism where all citizens are told that pursuing whatever is necessaryto  maximize their self interest will deliver the best results for all society.  As the President stated, the problem with models based on narrow self interest is that they simply do not work.  (full transcript and video of the speech here)

The canonical thought experiment that illustrates the failure of exclusive reliance on self interest is known as the “Prisoner’s dilemma“.   Chris Hayes, moderator of MSNBC’s weekend talk show Up! used the Prisoner’s Dilemma to  introduce a discussion on political dysfunction at the core of the current banking  crisis in the European Union (video).  The dilemma goes like this:

Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal- if one testifies against his partner (defects / betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates / assists), the betrayer goes free and the cooperator receives the full one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each ‘rats out’ the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do?

In an arms race, it is in each country’s rational self interest to spend more heavily on arms, producing the irrational result of enormous resources wasted on weapons that neither party wants to use- as in the case of the Cold War.  The best strategy in any Prisoner’s Dilemma game is achieved when all players decline to be motivated by narrow self interest.  The relevancy to the EU crisis is that preventing economic collapse  requires unanimous consensus between all players so the maximal result is achieved only if all countries decline to follow the easy course of being motivated by self interest (doing the politically popular action, and getting re-elected).

In the Prisoner’s dilemma,  the game is rigged to persuade individuals to betray hidden information.  There is an opposite game that is rigged so that individuals will strongly resist truth telling.  Whether we call it snitching or betraying information that should be private is dependent on whether we regard the truth telling as morally correct or not.

So what is it that makes the individual prisoners “snitch” and not the persons on the football team/ Catholic church/ foreclosure farm legal firm/ “Margin Call” employee? What encourages snitching in one case but not the other? We understand why the Prisoner’s dilemma works but what goes on with the systemic collusion between large numbers of people in a group to block truth telling about a wide variety of serious misdeeds such as sodomization of boys, selling worthless securities, or fraudulently foreclosing on homes?

The foundation of our economic theory and much moral theory is that what is economically and morally good is that which enhances the individual’s well being.

Whether this principle is true or not, so long as large numbers of people believe it is true, then groups of individuals motivated to achieve particular outcomes will game the public using this handle on their behavior. If plutocratic goals are maximized when individuals are set against each other, then it is best to frame the game as individuals against individuals as in “the prisoner’s dilemma” where self interest encourages them to reveal the truth. If a collusion of silence is desired then the game is framed alternately, so that self interest enforces conformity to the group’s truth.

This is the core of widespread corruption in modern society- the notion that unfettered self-interest will achieve whatever the society as a whole views as good. The popularity of this view is why libertarianism is attractive as a tool of plutocrats. Many entities govern our lives, and plutocrats prefer corporate governance of the affairs of the masses, rather than governance by elected officials who must be lobbied. So the best game strategy from plutocrats like the Kochs is to strongly associate the public’s belief in the philosophy of self interest with libertarian themes, eliciting identification with a group that assaults the role of elected and not corporate governance.

The mystery why some individuals truth tell and other times do not permeates the news. Ginger White comes forward with the truth about Cain not because she felt some greater good that society should know the truth, but because others in her family had leaked the truth to the Press. Minus this impetus, the self interest was to keep her and Cain’s actions secret from public view because the truth would injure her identity: the persona of upstanding moral character she wished to project to others. Truth telling forced her to admit to her children that she had “messed up”.  Similarly, truth telling by members and leadership in certain Catholic churches or at Penn State would injure the bonds of identity that their loyal members have with those strong social groups.  Even admitting the truth to themselves is difficult, and evidence of misdeeds creates can create such intense cognitive dissonance that they seek news sources that will shield them from profoundly disturbing information that is counterfactual to the group logos.  For football players seeing their coach sodomize a young boy, their world would fracture- their “mind would be gone” (source).  Avoiding such pain leads one either to sequester oneself against all news, or to choose a news sources like FOX that make the implied contract with their viewers that they will present only information that reinforces their identity and will not create cognitive dissonance.

Gaming the public’s sense of self interest has been used as a powerful lever of political power, and the fulcrum of the electorate’s sense  of self identity is moved with political messaging in order for the lever to achieve maximal political results.  Having a republican media strategist like Roger Ailes control FOX news presents a 21st century mechanism for dictating what the group logos is.

There is a deeper sense of identity that defeats this cynical leveraging. Who we are- who we really are- is determined by the Ginger White events of our lives.   The veneer of normalcy that people around us assume we conform may or may not have much relationship with who we are behind the social mask, as revealed in the often hidden facts of what we actually do in our lives. Are we a moral person if we simply follow procedure and foreclose on homes that we either know or suspect that we do not have the legal or moral right to foreclose on? Are we moral if we simply follow captain’s orders and are we ok if we do whatever the group think states is correct?  Such self deception relieves us even of guilt pangs as we pepper spray citizen’s peacefully exercising their constitutional rights, and allows plutocrats to corrupt police forces into mercenaries for their interests.

Gaming of individual self interests makes it easy to create conditions so that individuals will behave in ways beneficial to the 1%. It is important to understand cases where this gaming fails and why. The prisoner’s dilemma is no dilemma if the two prisoners identify themselves with the good that the group is united in fighting for. “One fighter may go down, but their brothers will carry on the fight.”  There is a noble identity in “Fighting the good fight” that in tribal terms guarantees on a place at the table in Valhalla. The soldier in the fight must make a move that is not in their rational self interest.  The rational thing is for each individual to feel from the battle.  Luxembourg’s Prime Minister reveal this dilemma is at the heart of the EU banking crisis: ““We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get reelected once we have done it.” (source- Jared Bernstein’s blog) If the EU members behave from an identity tied to the good that the EU represents, the elected officials behave in a manner with the attitude that they may go down, but their brothers will carry on, then there is no dilemma.  Further, if their electorate sees their heroism for the good that the voters also identify with, then the politician will not fall.

The corrupt systems where there is a group conspiracy of silence breaks down if the players bind their identity not to their individual interests but instead define their identity with the good the group represents. Say the two prisoners are captured American soldiers. The two heroically bind themselves to the good their country represents, and appeals to their narrow self interest by their captors fail. Note that “the good that the group represents” can subtly be rephrased in the players’ minds as the “good of the group”.  This form can be gamed because it is simply a variant (group) form of self interest.   Consider the corrupt group collusion case where the member’s identity is tied not to the good the group represents, but to the group’s self interest and the group’s self interest.  Who are you?  Large percentages of individuals will respond with their occupation. In this framing, the soldier comes across evidence that the army deliberately killed innocent civilians. The system based on self interest breaks down when the soldier identifies himself with the good his army is sworn to defend, and not his identity as member of a prestigious group whose interests would be injured if he “snitches”.

How do the football team members/ clergy members/ wall street executives understand their identity? When their identity is tied to the good that the group attempts to faithfully represent, it is much more difficult for plutocrats to game the outcome to their liking.  If you like to avoid the ambiguity with the “good of the group” by referring to the “set of goods that the group represents” as the group’s “logos”. The members of the groups become interested in examining the identity of their officials to see if they are frauds, or genuinely bound to the uniting logos they believe in.

This is not to say that binding self identity with any particular group logos is a panacea for society’s ills. For example, if the group views the good as something akin to the ethos of survival of the fittest predators, then anyone that betrays the tribe by preying on on of its members is unpardonable.  In the republican primary race for the 2012 presidential elections, commentators puzzled why one candidate Herman Cain was brought down by a scandal where he had a 15 year sexual affair, but was seemingly unaffected by charges he sexually harassed other women.  The reason was that the victim was a member of someone he had a bond with (his wife) that he betrayed.  Using the predator narrative, victims outside the tribal group bond are fair gaime, so pursuits of sexual prey (sexual harassment accusations) are unimportant charges, and perhaps even admirable especially if hyper masculinity is part of the group’s logos.

This group logos is more conventionally referred to the kind of “organizational culture” one sees in the shared assumptions, narratives, and group think that Durkheim recognized as a form of  collective consciousness that holds a society of people together. In the Paris commune of 1871, it is what drove individuals on their own initiative to carry our administrative functions of state without central direction.  It can be expressed as a durable corporate culture established by a company’s leader.  Steve Jobs felt this culture was his lasting legacy, not any particular innovation created during his tenure leading Apple corporation.

I used the nonsecular term “logos” as a shorthand to point to an anchoring of identity in a ground of being expressed in literary constructs. I did not intend to imply the requirement of either a nonsecular or secular point of view. This form of identity is what Levy-Bruhl referred to as the Participation Mystique, though in his work he applied it to social behaviors of primitive peoples.  In modern tribalism, it helps us understand the crucial activity of participation with literary constructs.  The constructs differ, but the activity of this participation is cross cultural, transcending the classifications of secular systems versus religious world views.   A modern secular way of describing this is that the individual identity is bound to the Kant’s description of a categorical imperative.  As an individual, you bind yourself to a good, and there is no real philosophical difference between your doing and the essence of your Being. If your process is not living the maxims (logos) you bind yourself to, then at that moment you are a fraud. This means there is no difference between means and ends, that there ought be no difference between what you do unto others and what you would have done unto you.   Although this has a profoundly spiritual sense, it can be utterly secular without any reference to symbols of formal or informal religions.  Speaking in terms meaningful to self identified Christians, analogs of the notion of Logos as described in the Christian 4th Gospel (In the beginning was the λόγος “logos”…) may be found in most religions and does not require further elaboration here except for the comment that the term intends the wider dimensions possible than if I had chosen alternative terms such as “maxim” or group “ethos”.

Asking what the nature of a movement is concerns itself with identification of its logos.  Our ideas of how nature is ordered forms a substrate framework that silent guides the hidden assumptions we make in such analysis.  Our politics are imprisoned in the 18th century enlightenment’s assumptions of what is natural. By the 19th century, social Darwinism had a fully developed metaphor of organisms brutally pursuing self interest, and has dominated our economic, moral and political assumptions of what conforms to norms found in nature. In life sciences, the metaphor is misleading when examining behavior of social organisms, such as the survival value of empathy in animals. For example, as evolutionary biologist Frans de Waal explains in “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For a Kinder Society” (Sci-Fri interview), there is high selection pressure placed on females to respond quickly to the needs of her offspring.  If they did not, the offspring would die due to loss of heat, food, or by threat of predators.  Maternal care and other group survival needs fosters strong feelings of empathy and altruism in social groups.   Economic, moral and social libertarians recoil at the “collectivist”  implications of any alternatives to the model of rugged individuals exclusively motivated by self interest.  Historically, the American right has used misogynist phrasings that recognize this gender wisdom, vilifying such group logos as signifying infantile dependence on the “tit of the state”.  De Waal is quick to point out that empathy does not achieve exclusivity in organisms- and that in primates self interest is very much essential to survival.  Nonsecular formulations of the ethical dimensions of this dual nature have a long history of exploration so I refer to them here, but readers ought not feel alienated by them because I do not assert any primacy for these particular constructs. For me the following is a compact way of placing a footnote for a complex subject out of the scope of this discussion, but may quickly provide some of readers an indication of my drift of thought.  My footnote is that in christological terms our nature is duoteletis– that we have two independent wills- one a logos of collective consciousness informing us of the good, the other the will of a concrete human self with our individual responsibilities and constraints.

This much we know from 2008- systems that rely exclusively on self interest cannot be trusted. This is a realization that has dawned even the arch libertarian Alan Greenspan who remarked to a House inquiry “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” He admitted: “… I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.” (source:NYT)

Regardless whether Greenspan is able to construct an alternative economic model or not, we can recognize the broader failure as we look to the dysfunction in the political, due to analysis expecting the electorate to obey the model of enlightened self interest. When progressives make technocratic mechanisms of achieving electoral victory relying on appeals to self interest and refraining from literary appeals to a collective sense of moral injustice, time and again we fail: 2010, Gore candidacy; Kerry candidacy. Inspiring literature is the heart and soul of the society, not a dishonest decoration pasted on rationalist technocratic policies as a mechanism of propaganda.

The eighteenth century model tells us that appeals that seek to bind the group with narratives and social goods are inherently a-rational because they are unprovable; lacing communication with literary rhetoric that appeals not to reason but non rational empathetic sense of common good. Such emotional appeals are seen to be dishonest manipulations, when rational analysis of self interest is seen to be the clear path to a more orderly rational society. Self interest is held to be universal, and so a health care policy crafted to appeal the the broadest self interests of the largest number of stakeholders technically should have been the best approach. As noted by Jared Bernstein on the Sunday show regarding Health Care, and as noted by Van Jones regarding progressive activists, the White House was resistant to invoking strong literary narratives that explained the presidential policies in terms of an established national logos. Perceiving the failure of technocratic operatives to handle the successor to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, Obama struggled to resurrect the forces that got him where he was, complaining in Suskind’s book “What is my narrative?” Obama is aware of his oratorical power to convince but seems to believe that convincing people this way is not healthy for the republic. He would prefer that people perform a rational analysis of the commonality between everyone’s self interest, and come to the inevitable compromise that rational enlightened citizens would come to.

If Obama uses the rhetorical skills he demonstrated again today in Osawatomie only for campaign effect and fails to establish in the national consciousness a narrative based on his vision of a New Nationalism group logos, then the great historical curiosity of this presidency will be the irony that a president so well versed in literature was so reluctant to use his literary skills, placing his faith not in the word, but in mechanical analysis of self interest. Obama, with no drama: that approach would be a heroic triumph for the 18th century vision of democracy, but is not only unnatural, but unsuited to battle with the 21st century plutocracy that has thoroughly gamed the ethos of rational self interest.  Perhaps the “Teddy Roosevelt” like themes struck in the President’s Kansas speech is an indication that Barack Obama will vigorously establish this vision of a common logos for the nation.  From my view of his character and what essential service leaders can provide for their society, Obama understands very clearly what he must do.  Yet it is a tremendous challenge for any culture hero no matter how skilled.  The contrast in narratives and the powerful interests arrayed against him are truly of epic proportions.


About John JMesserly

Mostly harmless

Posted on 2011-12-07, in 2012 Elections, anthropology, Being, categorical imperative, class warfare, cognitive dissonance, collective consciousness, consensus governance, corruption, ethics, identity, language, logos, Obama governance, swarm. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. good article. This is John G. Messerly, You can find my philosophical blog at

  1. Pingback: “Just get us to Shop more”? Is that all we need to do? « John J. Messerly

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