Seemingly intelligent groups will engage in long arguments around terms that neither side has defined. One such word is “interest”, as in the common trope of political debate: “Go vote your interest. It’s the only democratic antidote to greed, hate and ignorance.”
This begs the question, since the disagreements about what policies are “in the interest” of this person or that – the disagreements are already embedded in the conflicting definitions of “interest”. So all the arguments, on both sides, are circular.
Does “my interest” simply mean “what is good for my checkbook”? If so, then a sound vote is just a vote to get free money from other people. Or does it mean “what is best for the country in the long run” – even though that might be bad for my checkbook? This is presumably a more noble stance.
There’s a common illusion that seems to feed the belief that if the masses simply vote their interest all will be well, as if they don’t already vote their interest, but are misled by hypnotists. It’s usually in the throes of some economic disaster when this complaint sounds the loudest. But it’s conspiracy thinking, and it’s lazy. To believe that economic recessions are created by a few rich greedy financiers, and the common people would prevent such silliness if they were only watching – is one of the populist illusions. And like all the populist sound-bites, it require serious mental gymnastics to keep believing. In simple fact, recessions usually follow the bursting of some investment bubble, which are funded by a large number of common people borrowing money they cannot repay. The borrowers think it is in their interest (forgive the pun). They dream of sudden and easy wealth, whether of tulips or of inflated housing values or magical stock values. It takes large numbers of little people, frothed by some collective mania, to make economic disasters. A few men in waistcoats with gold pocket-watches can’t do it, sorry.
A bubble inevitably forms when two things coincide: hope of private gain, backed up by socialized risk. These unsophisticated debtors believe there is certain gain from borrowed money and the risk can be avoided. Gain is easily pictured in tangible form (a bigger house, faster car, fancier clothes), while risk is an abstraction that that requires cold, logical tools. That gain without risk makes no rational sense is not in the field of vision when the pictures blind the mind. No need for new words: “greed” will do. The common people are no less greedy than the shadowy bankers. Never search for a secret conspiracy of wall-street wolverines when obvious culprits are milling about.
These are the same common people who vote yes for every social benefit, and no for every tax, which builds an American social safety net which is nothing other than a bubble. A synonym for this pathology is: “voting your interest”.
This financial analysis is widely understood. We all know there are massive unfunded liabilities in the American system. But we insist on putting this long-term structural problem down to to some hidden minority (the conspiracy mind) or to some cognitive deficit on the part of the voters. Populists on the left and right differ on who the hidden manipulators are, and they fight over who to blame, but they share the exact same bad logic in the service of the exact same external locus-of-control. And anthropological optimists on the left think that voters just need to be educated on their interests, and then we’ll tax everyone enough to fund the commitments we made ourselves.
But all of these are evasions of a simpler, less comfortable truth about human nature: we are, by nature, thieves. We want money for nothing, and we’re willing to take it, and especially if we can call the thievery something else, or point to to someone else. That this is true of the average person is demonstrated by the drift, over time, by a statistical certitude, toward making the entire country into an asset bubble.
Democratic systems are the worst ways to govern – except for all the others. But let’s not lie to ourselves. The electorate, always and everywhere, are corrupt and corruptible. The best systems of government are those that manage to thwart the thieves. Who are Us.