Monday, August 28, 2006

Is America Selfish?

by Tibor R. Machan

Yes, "Is American Selfish?" is an annoying question since America isn't some individual who could be selfish. But the question arose during one of Neil Cavuto's sessions, on Fox TV News, of yet another daisy chain of people blurting out ideas, interrupting each other while doing so, rarely able to finish a sentence before a fellow panelist or Cavuto himself interrupts, and carrying on in similar difficult to follow ways. I must say I rarely check out the program and only because someone I know -- Jim Rogers, author of Investment Biker and Adventure Capitalist, among other books -- is a member of this unruly assembly.

It was a brief exchange between Jim and another panelist, a woman whose name I cannot recall, that pricked my ears on this occasion of my checking out the program. The discussion, if you can call it that, dealt with China and the lady was saying, "China only cares about China." She went on to complain that China is only interested in profit, China is not even playing fair on several economic fronts, to which Jim replied by saying, something long the lines of, "Is America not just as selfish?"

The suggestion was, if I may risk offering an interpretation, that America is a country with economic policies that serve its interest and it should be no surprise that China does exactly the same thing. Just how a country can have economic or any other policies that serve its interest is something of a mystery for me since, as I have already hinted, I do not think countries, societies, communities and the like can have interests. Only individual human beings can, although sometimes individuals do unite with others to form an organization that can advance its members' goals and interests. But referring to the interest of a corporation or university or sports club is always simply a shorthand reference to the aggregate interests of the membership.

No group of people, simply as a group, can have interests since what an interest really amounts to is either (a) what one is concerned about, (b) what one wants or prefers, (c) what is actually, really to one's benefit, or (d) some combination of all of these. Only living beings -- which includes even plants and animals -- can have interests, and humans can have very complex ones, due to their highly developed nature. But America as a nation has no interests other than what the American Founders assigned to it because they believed that those interests are shared by all human beings; namely, the securing of the rights of all persons being served by the government. And surely that is not what Jim and his fellow panelists were talking about.

Of course, the American government does promote certain goals in dealing with China and all other countries. Yet this is just the problem. In selecting what goals to promote, the American government must, of necessity, set priorities and these will very often serve the interests of only some, even very few, of the citizenry. There is no way that all of us can be well served when governments set these priorities since we have a great variety of interests, we some 250 million individuals who make up America.

So whose interests are the US government promoting? Whose are China? What on earth could the self-interest of a government amount to when it is divorced, as it must be with such huge countries, from the interests of individuals whom it is supposed to serve? America has no self; you and I do. That is to say, we have personalities, character, preferences, desires, goals, values, aspirations, hopes, and so forth. Of all of these, the government can, by its very nature, satisfy nearly none! At its best, a government can do just one thing: namely, protect our basic rights from criminals and foreign aggressors. Anything else governments do must of necessity serve some specific individual or individuals' interests.

I have a friend who jokes a lot and he recently told me "I do want everyone to be like me; it's, after all, the best way to be, why else would I be the way I am?" I suppose the panelists on Cavuto on Business actually subscribe to my friend's idea, in all seriousness, and simply take it that if the government does serve their interests, it must be serving everyone's interests. And these being folks who are investors and other business professionals, all the talk about China's and America's self-interest most likely refers to China's and America's public policies that help out the business community.

It is not all that unusual to think that that's all that a country's self-interest amounts to but it is just wrong. There are millions, and in China billions, whose interests the government knows and does nothing about. What the governments of these countries tend to do, however different they are from each other, is to promote some collection of special interests, mainly those which the politically powerful deem important.

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