Please take the time to read and share this important letter that our clients submitted to The New York Times. It was published on the Times’ Opinion Page on July 10, 2012.
To the Editor:
Is selfishness at the root of America’s political and economic problems?
As Kurt Andersen (“The Downside of Liberty,” Op-Ed, July 4) observed, worries about the relationship between individualism and selfishness are as old as the Republic itself. And in the 1820s, Alexis de Tocqueville voiced his concern that the extreme individualism of the new American democracy could, if not curbed, sap “the virtues of public life.”
Across a broad range of public policy concerns, the debate over the role of government and “entitlements” has been hijacked by those who appeal to the selfish instincts of voters. Just consider the opposition to expansion of health insurance, regulation of the financial markets, increasing taxes on the very wealthy or spending to stimulate the economy.
Appeals to selfishness and its next of kin — envy — have been used to justify the gutting of pensions and benefits to public employees. Why should they enjoy benefits that you don’t have? Efforts to provide relief to homeowners facing foreclosures and college graduates mired in debt have been stymied by the mantra, Why should my tax dollars be used to help someone who was less frugal than I was?
Although actions rooted in selfishness may provide some short-term benefits to those who strive to maintain their relative advantages, they are destructive to society as a whole. As each generation’s winners institutionalize their advantages, the opportunities for those who are left behind become increasingly fewer. Economic inequality and powerlessness become the norms.
In the 1950s John Kenneth Galbraith bemoaned the existence of “private affluence and public squalor.” This disparity has only grown worse in the past 60 years.
The prognosis for a political culture in which citizens have been conditioned to think only in terms of “me” is grim since democracy requires, for its continued vitality, an understanding that we are all in this together.
PAUL L. NEVINS
Boston, July 9, 2012
The writer, a lawyer, is the author of “The Politics of Selfishness.”
Editors’ Note: We invite readers to respond to this letter for the Sunday Dialogue. We plan to publish responses and Mr. Nevins’s rejoinder in the Sunday Review. E-mail:email@example.com