Selfishness rules

Democracies came to be based on a balanced view of human nature; people are by nature selfish but self-government is possible because we are wise enough to restrain and control that selfishness.

James Madison, one of the founding fathers of American democracy, saw the frailty which threatened but also the countervailing qualities which could prevent disaster: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust; so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”

so140112ianThe pioneers of democracy knew that if people get the chance they will try to get something for nothing and favour short-term favours over long-term prosperity. So they crafted checks and balances to ensure nations would not be ruined by their people’s frailty. It is a difficult balancing act.

In America this was done by decentralizing power and setting up various checks to restrain the popular will by dispersing decision-making. One hope was that as people got more involved in state and local government they could develop a sense of responsibility for the larger community of the nation.

In Europe the approach was different. Authority was centralized. Under the parliamentary system voters did not even get to elect their leaders directly. They voted for parties and party elders selected the ones who would actually form governments through mostly hidden procedures. Power came to be held by small coteries of statesmen who were supposed to be well versed in the responsibilities of stewardship.  But the ‘European’ form of democracy was based on the same realistic view of human nature as the American view.

Democracies around the world have adopted versions, sometimes mixed, of these approaches to self-government. All are based on the sure knowledge that people are selfish balanced by the conviction that this selfishness can be sensibly regulated.

Over recent years the application of this balanced view has fractured. Leaders in democracies now do not think their objective is to control and sensibly direct the popular will. Their job as they see it is to flatter and satisfy it. Democratic politicians now possess the mind-set of marketing executives – give the customer what he wants. Voters now regard their wishes as entitlements. They command their politicians to give them benefits for which they should not be asked to pay.

The consequences are becoming clearer and clearer. Governments are making more and more promises they will not be able to keep without, in the end, printing money which, of course, is breaking faith with the people on an epic scale.


The decision-making machinery, lacking the self-restraining ethos, is breaking down. As an example, the American Congress can only pass laws that give people benefits with borrowed money – everything else is gridlocked. In Europe it is becoming normal to protest violently when governments say they cannot find a way to allow people to live beyond their means.

But it is not the ‘selfishness’ of the ordinary run of people that is mostly to blame for fracturing democracy. In the case of ordinary people their so-called selfishness is no more than a yearning for a fair share of their nations’ developed wealth.

The real, destructive selfishness is concentrated at the top. It is the most successful of the selfish, the very rich, who are completely undermining the democratic process. In America, for instance, income inequality is widening rapidly. Just one example – in 1970 the share of US income that went to the middle class (annual household income of $40,000 to $120,000) was 62% but had fallen to 45% in 2010 and is continuing to fall.

Democracies are increasingly facing debt crises and political dysfunction simultaneously. It is difficult to conceive how the tide is to be turned when self-government deteriorates into the self-indulgence of the very rich.  Leaders who call for discipline and self-sacrifice are quickly dismissed by voters increasingly controlled by big money. Either economic disaster or a much more authoritarian future seems to beckon in the world.


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