What's really in my self-interest? - Keith Roulston editorial
Driving down our country concession early last Friday afternoon we encountered a trail of beer cans tossed out a car window by someone who evidently didn’t think beyond his own immediate urge to be rid of this garbage.
After living on a rural road for 42 years we’re used to this, though usually on Saturday or Sunday mornings after a gravel run the night before – which might have included a game of mailbox baseball. Though this litter was unsightly and caused problems for grass cutters and farm machinery, we usually made excuses that the perpetrators were young and likely drunk. But in mid-afternoon on a weekday? Obviously this individual (or individuals) didn’t care about the problems they caused for others.
There have always been people among us who gave no thought to the consequences of their action upon others, but in the era of U.S. President Donald Trump, self-centredness has been turned into a virtue.
The interplay between the individual and the rest of the world is fascinating. The world existed before we were born and will exist after we die, yet for each of us as individuals, we only experience the world through our own consciousness. For each person the world only matters in how it affects him/her.
Because of this, we are all “self”-centred to some degree. Some people see the purpose of the world to give them what they want. Some people feel it’s part of their mission in life to leave the world a better place than they were born into. Most people probably live their lives somewhere in between.
Sometimes what’s in our long-term self-interest might go against our urge to get what we want right now. If everyone behaved like those beer-can-throwing yokels, (or the folks who pulled up in front of our office one day, set an entire fast-food tray full of empty containers on the sidewalk and drove away) probably even the litterers would complain about their filthy communities. These selfish individuals can have it both ways because, luckily, only a tiny minority act as they do.
The entire market economy is based on the belief that each of us will act in our own best interests. If it means we can save a little money we’ll trample over our own mothers to get a bargain. If we each do what’s best for us, somehow it will work out best for us all.
Self-centredness can go beyond the individual when we join with others in families, tribes, communities and countries seeking our group’s self-interest – a good example of which happened last spring.
The International Joint Commission (IJC) was set up way back in 1909 as an impartial board to look after the best interests of the Great Lakes and prevent conflicts between Canada and the United States. But the IJC took the blame last spring when the worst floods in decades hit the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, flooding the Toronto Islands and waterfront properties on both sides of Lake Ontario. New York Governor Andrew Cuoma demanded that dams on the St. Lawrence be opened up to let more water out of Lake Ontario.
But further downstream, the combination of what was already high water in the St. Lawrence combined with floodwaters from the Ottawa River to flood 5,400 Quebecers out of their homes. Governor Cuoma shrugged at the evidence that some people were already suffering more than New York state flood victims. “I understand they have a lot of concerns they have to deal with,” he said of the IJC, “they’re dealing with Canada and Montreal and the St. Lawrence. I represent the people of the State of New York and the people of the State of New York are getting the short end of the stick . . .” (That day Cuomo announced $27 million in aid for several hundred New York flood victims. Insurance claims in Quebec are expected to top a half-billion dollars.)
President Trump takes the same sort of stance in trade negotiations. He and his country must win every time. He doesn’t seem to realize that other countries can’t afford to buy American goods if they don’t also sell to the U.S. As well, winning creates resentment from those on the losing side who may seek revenge in future.
While there are still many generous people out there who continue to think of what’s best for the world and for others, we’ve been rewarding self-centredness more and more. It’s what consumerism is about: “I should get what I want, when I want it!” While we’re getting more for ourselves as individuals, we’ve damaged the communities we live in – unthinkingly participating in trends that have killed main streets and led to loss of community facilities.
We can get what we want right now, like that guy who tossed those beer cans out the window, but what’s best for us at this moment may not be what’s best for us down the line.