Balancing Altruism and Self-Interest in Government

Charles Kuralt

No doubt some of the “conservatives” (for lack of a better label — generally I dislike labels as oversimplifications) who read my articles feel that I spend too much energy denigrating our society. I can almost hear them say “If you love Denmark so much, why don’t you move there?”

The truth is that I’m a patriotic American. Many wonderful things happen here, due in large measure to deeply-seated values (civil liberties, for example), caring people, and governmental/economic systems that can, in the best of times, facilitate an exceptional way of life. I had the idea once of traveling around the country, Charles Kuralt style, looking for moving stories of people doing noteworthy things, writing about them, and documenting them with photographs. Maybe I’ll still do it some day.

But I don’t believe that patriotism equates to wearing blinders or denying reality altogether. In fact, a sophisticated definition of patriotism might well include a desire (a responsibility?) to move closer to achieving our full potential as a nation.

In the business world — and yes, in the non-profit world — we encounter the philosophy of “continuous improvement.” What would be wrong with applying that same philosophy to the country?

I wish it weren’t true. But a simple reading of daily news provides many examples of conditions that need to be improved. If they are at all indicative of conditions just as egregious that don’t get reported (as I suspect is the case), then we as a nation have some serious issues on our hands.

Take Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, for example. Front page headline: “Youths held by county were abused.” The story goes on to document a “troubled portrait of L.A.’s juvenile probation system,” including inappropriate sexual contact, physical beatings, and a culture that discourages reporting of such incidents by those mandated by law to report. (Thank goodness investigative reporting survives!)

Want more? On page A31, we discover that some corporations in California are opposing a bill (despite some attractive features) because it would impose penalties on corporations and wealthy individuals for improperly claiming tax breaks to which they are not legally entitled. (And the Great Terminator has vowed to veto the bill if passed unless it has unanimous support of the various interest groups — such “leadership!” Pardon me while I vomit.)

Hmm, I wonder how we would feel about bank robbers establishing a coalition (most likely one that would qualify for tax-exempt status) with the purpose of eliminating penalties on holding up the local Bank of America? (“I’m sorry, your Honor, I didn’t really mean to do it, and I promise never to do it again.” “OK, try to be more careful. Case dismissed.”)

An article on page A25 describes evidence that drug maker GlaxoSmithKline downplayed evidence that Avandia, a drug it markets to diabetics, substantially increases the risk of heart attacks. (Once again — thank goodness for what little regulation and investigative powers remain!)

OK, where does this leave us? People have genetic tendencies toward both self-preservation (self-interest) and generosity (altruism). The dynamic interface between these dual human traits results in complex organisms that are sometimes virtuous — and sometimes not. Nationalize this condition, and you have America: a country that is sometimes virtuous — and sometimes not. Is there any shame in wanting to be a better person tomorrow than you are today? Or trying to make the country a better place tomorrow than it is today?

Ron Wolff

Ronald Wolff publishes the blog Musings from Claremont, where this article first appeared. Republished with permission.

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