Wikipedia defines rational egoism thusly: “In ethical philosophy, rational egoism (also called rational selfishness or egotism) is the principle that an action is rational if and only if it maximizes one’s self-interest.” This is the rational selfishness of Ayn Rand, and the philosophy that the Republican Party is kind of pushing. The ‘kind of’ comes from the reality that a lot of the problem with rational selfishness lies in the inability of people to see the benefits unless they are either immediate or forced upon them.
It is in the rational self interest for a business to pay their employees well, make sure that they have adequate resources and time to work on projects, a safe work environment, and the benefits to make sure that they are limited in their emergency time off.
It is also in the rational self interest of a business to buy the best resources no matter what the cost- within reason, to make the least expensive items that are of the best quality, to make sure that they do not strip away and destroy everything around their resource gathering, make the environment around their plants toxic, and so forth.
Doing this often makes companies more profitable and more competitive, in theory.
That is not what business do, though. Because all it takes is one business which is willing to do horrible things in order to get an advantage over the others, it ruins the game for everyone else. Now, what you may be thinking is ‘well, people won’t want to work at this guy’s plant’ or ‘they won’t buy this guys stuff’, but they do.
Let us take Target and Walmart for just a moment. Target is, from what I’ve been told, the better place to work. The pay is a bit better, the work there a bit better. People still work at Target. Walmart often sells lower quality goods, but they still shop there.
I know that this might all seem kind of strange, but the reality is that people do not act with rational self interest, but emotional self interest. It is better to get to the top, they think, than be nice. So they race to the top stepping on the fingers of everyone they climb over.
The example that comes to mind is that of our local Hannifords. The store was, about three years ago or so, a wonderful place to shop. The employees were treated well, the customers were happy, and the environment there was nice. So, people shopped there. For a long time, the parking lot was packed on the prime shopping days.
Now, the parking lot is pretty empty most of the time. About three years ago or so, they started demanding that cashiers meet a certain threshold for number of rings per minute. Deli slicers were expected to slice up meats at a certain speed. Hours were cut. Benefits were cut.
Today, shoppers shop elsewhere.
The management blames the workers because they cannot see what happened. This is because what happened happened so slowly that they did not grasp cause and effect. So, they continue to make it worse in the race to the bottom.
Alright, for all of you who are wondering what the heck I’ve been talking about. The reality is that I subscribe to a pragmatic view of rational self interest. Personally, I feel that, so long as people are not harming others, what business is it of government’s to get involved in their lives? I dislike smoking bans. I dislike Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban. I dislike businesses being regulated.
The thing is, while I dislike all of those things, and many more, I am also pragmatic. People will not act in a manner that has any kind of rational self interest because they cannot think about how doing something now can hurt them down the road. For instance, it is against rational self interest to drink a lot of sugared soda. Oh, sure, right now it may not be a problem, but down the line? Yeah, you’ll get pretty sick.
The matter is about trust and understanding history. People will not act in their best interest, and certainly won’t act in the best interests of the society. They are selfish, greedy, and cruel. People cannot see how manipulating the markets for profit today will lead to a financial meltdown tomorrow. They could not see how subprime mortgages would lead to financial ruin- and they still have not grasped that helping out those who are now at risk of defaulting on their home loans will help them out in the long run.
If I trusted people to act in their best self interest, then I would advocate the removal of regulations. I would advocate the removal of laws governing behaviors. I would advocate for a greater deal of freedom. The thing is, it is my rational self interest to make sure that companies are regulated so that I’m not eating turkey fecal matter (ecoli comes via that, btw), irradiated fish (thanks to Vermont Yankee), or any number of things. It is in my rational self interest that people be prevent from manipulating the markets so that the companies that I rely upon do not need to raise prices because they got screwed over.
Simply put, it is in my rational self interest to make sure that the government is there to protect me from all of you crazy people who can’t be trusted to look after your own self interests rationally.