It's pretty clear that convinced belief in the self-serving and greedy nature of humanity can induce that very behavior, not only in those who believe it, but in others as well. I've written before about the rather alarming study that looked at how graduate students in various disciplines play cooperative games, such as the Ultimatum game, in which participants do better in so far as they manage to temper narrow self-interest and cooperate. Except for graduate students in economics, students in all fields played just about as cooperatively as the public at large. But the economics students were much more greedy. The explanation, as the economists who conducted the research suggested, isn't that these students were born that way, but that they had learned the self-interest model of human behavior in their economic studies, and assumed that others had too; they expected to find nothing but self-interest in others, and so acted accordingly. Not surprisingly, those others, encountering clearly selfish partners, soon responded in kind.
I was reminded of this by a comment that Zak left on my earlier post Who's the real enemy? As he wrote:
I consider myself a political conservative. The notion that politicians usually act in their own political best interest rather than in the best interest of the nation is close to being a conservative axiom. The resulting conclusion is that the electorate should be extremely stingy in how much wealth and power is ceded to the government.
I am continually amazed at the glaring inconsistency of well meaning liberals who think giving more wealth and power to the government is the best way to solve many problems, but are simultaneously horified at how elections actually turn out, and how the political process incentivises politicians to actually behave. Hope springs eternal that if only MY guys (gals) would win the elections, then things would be different. But history has shown repeatedly that people making this bet have been sorely disappointed.
I'm not sure that liberals really think that "giving more wealth and power to the government is the best way to solve many problems"; I would classify myself as liberal, and I certainly don't think that. But there's a deeper point here, which relates to the self-fulfilling behavior of economics students described above.
If it really is "close to a conservative axiom" that politicians always pursue their own political self-interest, this is a fairly demoralizing and, I think, ultimately damaging view of human affairs. Indeed, this is the "economic way of thinking" applied to government, as captured in so-called Public Choice theory; it's the rationalist view of how government works when everyone is thoroughly greedy and self-interested. It suggests, in particular, that anything and everything we've heard from the Bush Administration, or indeed, from anyone else, about the dangers of terrorism, the need to be vigilant so as to protect freedom and democracy, etc., has been nothing more than strategic noise by those in power as they go about seeking their personal interests. If it's a conservative axiom that this is business as usual, then I guess that's okay.
But I think this view contains within it the same danger as the economists' (traditional) view that people are only motivated by greed. If we only expect people to be greedy, and we're satisfied with such behavior, then that's what we'll get. Indeed, in a world of greedy people, acting in your own narrow self-interest at all times really is the only sensible strategy. But most of us, I think, aren't satisfied with that; we want more from government, just as we want more from our friends and colleagues. Even conservatives want more.
Consider a snippet from an article in the NYT about Jack Goldsmith, former head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush White House. Goldsmith was there in the hospital on that fateful night when Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card went the hospital bed of the very ill Attorney General Ashcroft to get him to sign off on measures in the "terrorist surveillance program" over which a number of Justice Department officials had already threatened to resign. Goldmith's recollections of what happened in that room:
Suddenly, Gonzales and Card came in the room and announced that they were there in connection with the classified program. "Ashcroft, who looked like he was near death, sort of puffed up his chest," Goldsmith recalls. "All of a sudden, energy and color came into his face, and he said that he didn’t appreciate them coming to visit him under those circumstances, that he had concerns about the matter they were asking about and that, in any event, he wasn’t the attorney general at the moment; Jim Comey was. He actually gave a two-minute speech, and I was sure at the end of it he was going to die. It was the most amazing scene I’ve ever witnessed."
That's a man acting on more than self-interest. It's a man who believed in something about government, and about the way it should be run.
If it really is "close to a conservative axiom" that everyone in government (and perhaps elsewhere?) is driven solely by greed, that may well be "hard-headed." But in the effort to recognize and take note of the baser nature of much human motivation, it risks throwing out, and indeed actually eliminating from public life, human motivation that goes beyond naked self interest. I'd say that it's close to a liberal axiom that people, however much they are motivated by self interest, also have other motivations. Most people care about fairness and justice. Most people (if it hasn't been trained out of them) have a spontaneous willingness to cooperate. Most people, or at least many people, will help their neighbors, and not merely because they expect something in return.
I don't think it's naive to want some of those kinds of motivations to play a role in government, be it large or small.