Self-Interest vs. Public-Interest

Many years ago one of my favorite professors, Dr. Virginia Ringer, posed this provocative question to a political philosophy class:  What is the basis for our trust of the profit motive?

Professor Ringer made it clear she didn’t want to hear any well-oiled platitudes or testimonials about capitalism being the “best system ever invented.”   This wasn’t to be an exercise in cheerleading.  What she wanted to hear was a defense of the cornerstone of capitalism — the profit motive.  So her question wasn’t why we needed it to work, or why we rooted for it to work, but rather, why should we trust it?

And given all the alarming privatization and anti-government rhetoric that has come down the pike since Ronald Reagan was president — not to mention the fact that the Democrats appear to have willingly, and without much of a fight, turned in their New Deal decoder rings — it’s a question we should be asking ourselves today.

Just as you can’t discuss the art of self-promotion without mentioning Arianna Huffington, you can’t discuss the excesses of capitalism without mentioning Big Tobacco.  Professor Ringer noted that despite a preponderance of medical evidence linking smoking to lung cancer, cigarette manufacturers have done everything in their power to deny it.  In her gritty, inimitable style, she said, “tobacco companies would rather see your mother die a slow, agonizing death than risk losing one nickel of profit.”

Melodramatic as that accusation was, she wasn’t wrong.  In 1957, the U.S. Surgeon General announced that cigarette smoking was “one of the causative factors of lung cancer.” Yet it wasn’t until 1999, 42 years later, that the industry publicly acknowledged the fact, when Philip Morris admitted there was an “undeniable link” between smoking and lung cancer.   And during those 42 years tobacco companies spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying to keep cancer warnings off cigarette packages.

Clearly, Big Tobacco is an example of the profit motive trumping every other impulse, including not caring if your product causes people to die, and doing everything in your power to keep that risk a secret.

Was using cigarette manufacturers as Exhibit A a fair depiction of capitalism?  While some students agreed that it was, others strongly disagreed, arguing that this was an anomalous case of the profit motive running amok.  In any event, it was government — not free enterprise — who came away looking good.  After all, the feds weren’t trying to outlaw cigarettes; they were simply warning people of their health risks.

Next, we discussed “price gouging.”  Simply put, anti-gouging laws prevent businesses from charging exorbitant prices for staples like milk, drinking water and baby food during emergencies or natural disasters.  As much as local merchants may salivate at the prospect of tripling or quadrupling their profits by raising prices following, say, an earthquake, state governments prohibit it.

These “anti-free market” laws were enacted out of necessity and in the name of public welfare and common decency, because — to put it bluntly — the naked profit motive, in all its glory, simply can’t be trusted.  The government was required to intervene on behalf of the people.  And other than Attila the Hun and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who in their right mind could object to that?

Before class ended, Professor Ringer brought up advertising.  She asked those who believed that advertisements were basically true — that they weren’t grossly misleading exaggerations or outright lies — to raise their hands.  Out of about twenty students, not one person raised their hand, which turned out to be an unexpectedly comical moment, greeted with self-conscious laughter even by those who’d positioned themselves as “pro-business.”

No one is suggesting we nationalize Wal-Mart or MacDonald’s.  But privatizing social security, health care, highways, public education, prisons, etc. is not only a dumb idea, it’s a dangerous one.  Besides the inevitable decline in quality via bottom-line fever, we’ll be losing these public institutions forever.  Make no mistake; once they are privatized — once the bankers and speculators gain control, and fee-for-service becomes a way of life — we’ll never get them back.

Say what you will about fuddy-duddy government and stodgy bureaucracies being unimaginative and inefficient.  But when it comes to safeguarding the public’s interests, the government is infinitely more trustworthy than some slick-talking, flag-waving, scurvy-assed entrepreneur whose sole concern is making a buck.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on March 8th, 2011 at 2:54pm #

    some slick-talking, flag-waving, scurvy-assed entrepreneur whose sole concern is making a buck.

    Well put David

  2. Don Hawkins said on March 8th, 2011 at 3:13pm #

    Did you see Newt Gingrich yesterday he said two plus two equals four then went on to talk about America exceptional ism nothing new under the Sun for these .05er’s.

    Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary. ~Albert Einstein

    Work that one into your talking point’s Newt old boy.

  3. Wingnut said on March 9th, 2011 at 3:49am #

    “Coffee time hay who could play Plato again it’s a speaking roll and how’s the pay nice cup of coffee.”

    Geez Don. WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT? 🙂 If you’re going to rattle on, couldn’t you do it coherently? My goodness. And how about doing it all in one post? Any chance?

    “Now color me crazy but why can’t we call them on this am thinking a pyramid on a flatbed truck or trailer heck maybe a new party the 2020 party you would think to just use basic known knowledge would be helpful.”

    HUH? C’mon! I don’t particularly want to color you crazy, but you sure are giving us plenty of reason to consider it. 🙂

  4. Don Hawkins said on March 9th, 2011 at 3:54am #

    Nice try Wingnut no cigar nice cup of coffee any LRAD’s in town.

  5. PatrickSMcNally said on March 9th, 2011 at 4:25am #

    > No one is suggesting we nationalize Wal-Mart or MacDonald’s.

    Actually, companies which are that big should be nationalized. The smaller retail coffee shops don’t to be nationalized, but giant companies on that scale should be. Back when Bill Van Auken and Jim Lawrence ran as candidates their statement was that:

    “… we advocate the transformation of all privately owned industrial and manufacturing corporations valued at $10 billion or more into publicly owned enterprises, with full compensation for small shareholders and the terms of compensation for large shareholders to be publicly negotiated. The SEP also proposes the nationalization of all large banking and insurance institutions. In addition, the SEP advocates the nationalization of the power industry and the placement of all critical natural resources under public ownership and control.”

    That was a rather reasonable call, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the “10 billion” criterion suggested there was enough to cover Wal-Mart and McDonald’s as well.

  6. Wingnut said on March 9th, 2011 at 5:23am #

    See, now that wasn’t so bad, was it Don? And no further off topic than someone complaining about incoherence, eh? 🙂 Would you be willing to explain to myself and others as to WHY you struggle so much with document legibility, ramble, and topic disconnection, Don? Are you a tooter, by chance? Lonely? What? Please? I find that you have an interesting mind, Don, but if I/we can’t read your posts… or if they are blatantly off topic, than I personally feel that I’m not getting access to those thoughts. We both get cheated… no matter how many LRAD decibels. Please give a straight answer, if you feel so inclined.

    Author, to try to get back on subject… its not as simple as self-interest vs public-interest, and a guy should probably think about eliminating “vs” altogether in this, as its not a black/white, up/down, left/right battle-like thing. Its all gray area.

    Let me tell you about spirography. No matter which way you start rolling the gears of the spirograph, the pen ALWAYS, eventually, returns to its starting place. Issue bills, and they come back into your mailbox. Issue love/sharing, and it does the same, eventually. Spirography. All flower petals (people) are LOOPS, not points. Everything gets handed-on. With me? Spirography is the same as “What goes around, comes around”. And this… if real and true… means that what helps team, helps self. The military knows this, and uses a moneyless ownerless (custodianships only) commune for its survival/supply system. The USA public library system also uses a commune like that… no monetary discrimination seen, and no price tags, so no “affording” blockades. The military uses freely-handed-out requisition forms, and puts luxuries into “recreational services” for all to share, no matter any ranks or “affording”. The military has a great delineation system between necessity and luxury, and knows that helping team, helps self.

    So when you put a “vs” in there, you have set up an unnecessary and inapplicable US vs THEM war… and its not that simple. Once its proven that helping Team Earth… helps each member of Team Earth, your “vs” becomes moot. Now, getting everyone on the same team… THAT’s the challenge. Does the term “police” come from the term “policy”, or is it the other way (goes/comes) around? Thoughts?

  7. commoner3 said on March 9th, 2011 at 3:19pm #

    Re: Wingnut said on March 9th, 2011 at 5:23am #

    The problem is that most people are not wise enough and decent enough to really grasp that “we are all in it together”, for most of them “dog eats dog” is their motto and “I will get what I can get”.
    Look at the bastards of Wall St. and what they did and doing to the rest of the country and the world. These are people who are extremely wealthy to start with , who were educated in Yale, Harvard, Princeton.. etc and who are in most cases had very comfortable upbringin, all that is still not enough.
    Look at the Walton family of Walmart with almot 150 billions dollars of Wealth and still they battle their employees for each penny.
    Unfortunately, it will be US vs THEM until there is a fundumental change in culture and outlook and this will take a very long time to happen.

  8. Don Hawkins said on March 9th, 2011 at 5:17pm #

    Grandpa what’s an LRAD? Well my boy it’s a machine designed to keep you a slave in the land of Oz.

  9. Wingnut said on March 9th, 2011 at 10:22pm #

    Yeah, I agree, Commoner3. Cronyism amongst the old gold folk. A different type of “networking”… rather exclusive membership. That’s why I’m out to abolish economies/ownership in the long run (I’d welcome a short run, too). All men are NOT created equal, are they? It all depends upon what layer of the socio-economic pyramid scheme you were born-at, huh? Generally, we’re born with the friends, good name, bank accounts, and opportunities… of our parents. And, most of the planet is owned. None of the squatting allowed for the earlier “founding families”… is available to the newer arrivals.

    The folks who snort honey and diamonds… are not in any hurry to level the pyramid, are they? “They” ARE members of the “we” and/or the “each others”… but a SYSTEM that condones and promotes rat-racing, getting-a-leg-up (pyramiding), em-banking, and power-wielding… makes “them” look like (and act like) non-we’s.

    Really though, just one law… making monetary discrimination (blockading opportunities via ‘affording”)… illegal, and its all over with. THAT method… would be quite quick. But monetary discrimination, and forcing the USA 18 yr olds to join the free marketeers OR STARVE… is something we/they… still think is acceptable behavior. Forcing the kids to join a church of competers (capitalism) is bad enough, but the capitalism-common “pay up or lose your house” is SO much like the “pay up or lose your happiness” of Chicago mobs prior to Elliot Ness… that its beyond scary.

    Public-interest vs self-interest is not inherently a PEOPLE weighing. Its more of a weighing of two attitudes. I have met and spent some time with some very rich folk, folk whose 10 companies employ over 5000 people. The ones I know… think they are helping team… by employing that many people, and providing that many products and services. Their incomes are ridiculously high, and so are their worries… but they are a different type of worry than the making-ends-meet-type that some of us “we” deal with.

    Often, these “fortunes” are handed down through old gold bloodlines as you mentioned… and these young set-for-lifes are out-of-touch with the histories of HOW those fortunes came to be. These super-fortunate need to grapple with the moral implications of their prowess… just like any human. In doing that… their actions, and histories, get painted-up in “we are helping the team” makeup and perfumes… in order to feel okay about it all. They need to hand these rosie paint jobs down the family bloodlines along with the companies and fortunes. So the kids of the super-rich… get indoctrinated with the same “we’re not hurting anyone, we’re making products and employing 5000+”-pig-in-a-poke… as their parents, grandparents, etc… hold/held dear.

    If the rich ancestors are/were self-BSing (blinders) or have lack of knowing the family corporate history, it just gets handed down. Yet, some of the rich folks I spent time with… got rich by squatting/buying land for pennies per acre. They KNOW that the land they now make fortunes-on, was gotten “dirt cheap”. They know… those early deals…. seem unfair to newcomers. The super rich DO have feelings and DO feel love. They are indeed “we”… but they are “we” that have been put in a unique position… in a system that allows unique positioning. The rich that I know… tried to quench that guilt… by having pride in the amount of employees they are able to take care of, and the amount of team-helping products they can “offer”. Maybe these super rich that I know… are not the “they” that we broke-backs think are the problem… I don’t know. The super-rich that I know… are pretty loving people… and I consider them “WE in strange places”. I’m sure there are slimy greedy gougy rich folk, too, but I’ve never met any of those, or seen them intentionally being slimy. I’ve seen many-a POOR folk being slimy and greedy, though… mostly out of pure desperation.

    Yep, rough waters, huh? I think if we/they ever DO drop (dew drop?) the hierarchical pyramid and go flat-equality instead, where we/they abolish economies and relinquish all owning… (everyone throws everything they have… into the Team World repository/supply system for all to share)… then WE will have to aim our TV cameras at the folks who relinquish the big loads… make them “stars” to a degree. I know if I had-to/decided-to throw “my” 4 huge Hollywood homes into a “stone soup” to be shared by a bunch of formerly homeless… I’d want some TV star worship just to get over the shock of that. I think it would probably take about 40 million pats on the back to get-over the shock of giving a $40 mil home to the Team Earth repository/commune. 🙂

    Meantime, monetary discrimination and “affording”, anyone? “Affording”. Probably comes from the word “ford”… to get across a barricade… as in “fording” a river. Yep, there’s not a whole lot of a-ford-ing happening in this ol’ boy’s life, I tell you what. The rivers (cost of living) are wide and deep, and getting wider and deeper by the minute… while my a-ford-ing raft is rotting away. Permanent a-ford-ing bridge? What’s that?

    Thanks for the coherent and pertinent comments, c3. More thoughts certainly welcomed.

  10. Deadbeat said on March 9th, 2011 at 11:44pm #

    There are people thinking of alternatives. I’d suggest looking at the film ZEITGEIST: MOVING FORWARD []

  11. Don Hawkins said on March 10th, 2011 at 3:45am #

    Wingnut good stuff as for a long time I thought it was just me then again red is gray and Yellow white but we decide which is right and which is an Illusion.

    MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Senate succeeded in voting Wednesday to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers, after Republicans outmaneuvered the chamber’s missing Democrats and approved an explosive proposal that has rocked the state and unions nationwide. AP

    Who need’s collective bargaining heck just buy more gold or read the new book out the teaching’s of Murdoch or how Goldman Sach’s made it’s billions. I hear a new book coming out titled how to wimp out and make millions off the masses. The first chapter tell’s us all how bad is good it’s all in how you look at it. It’s early and yes getting a tad bit ugly on the third planet from the Sun.

  12. Don Hawkins said on March 10th, 2011 at 7:40am #

    Oh heck let’s give the few the chance to crush us it will help them get up in the morning. Of course what do we replace the system with just on the off chance they don’t crush us well as a start a mind that can think clearly would be good. Very sure not what we want but what we need and yes the very thought of that for a few and some of the many will send the head spinning around and around so be it. Last night on Fox New’s the Hannity Show they did a little on the new movie coming out Atlas Shrugged am not going probably watch the royal wedding over and over to see if I missed anything. Then again take my TV outside and break it into little pieces a much better idea let’s just say I don’t want to be the last to get it.

    Here’s a great picture;


    Open the door please open the door, sorry we can’t do that our mission is much to important.