Why America Decays: The Tyranny of Self-Interest

Only those societies which still have a functional public interest / common good will survive; those ruled by the tyranny of self-interest will fall.

I’ve discussed the moral rot consuming the American Project in blog posts and my books. This moral rot–perhaps better described as civic decay–is so pervasive and ubiquitous that we are forgiven for assuming “this is the way it’s always been.”

This inability to discern the rot is the result of the gradualness of the decay. There are many analogies: the slowly boiled frog, the way in which weight gain creeps up on us, and so on. This is the result of humanity’s finely tuned knack to habituate to any new environment and normalize what would have been intolerable in the recent past.

We adapt to changing expectations, incentives, values and realities over time and forget the way our world functioned in previous eras.

There are many examples of this. Many of the changes in our society, politics and economy can be traced back to the early 1980s, when financialization (and its offspring, regulatory capture and pay-to-play) began its rise to supremacy.

Forty years ago, student loans were unknown and healthcare costs did not bankrupt households. Forty years ago, relatively few Americans were obese. Go back a decade further, prior to the explosion of fast-food outlets, and a small percentage of the money Americans spent on food went to eating out / away from home, i.e. fast-food and restaurants. Eating out was a treat reserved for special occasions, not a daily ritual / birthright.

In the post-Vietnam era, Americans were wary of foreign entanglements. The Presidency wasn’t quite as Imperial as it is today. Congress still held some modest power over foreign entanglements. This is no longer the case.

The most insightful way to grasp the pervasive moral rot is to examine the tyranny of self-interest:in the past, the public interest / common good still had a foothold in the nation’s values, incentives and expectations. Now the public interest / common good are nothing but paper-thin PR cover for maximizing private gains by any means available, i.e. the supremacy of self-interest.

Our ability to discern the difference between serving the public interest / common good and making a modest profit doing so and harming the common good to maximize private gains has been lost. There are many such examples. The financialized self-interest behind student loans, healthcare, national defense, Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Everything–i.e. cartels and monopolies–is visible in every nook and cranny of the U.S. economy, political structure and economy.

Synthetic opioids offer a good example. Under the preposterously false guise of “serving the common good” with painkillers, Big Pharma caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands more via the devastation of addiction– addiction which Big Pharma was pleased to promote as non-addictive because this served to maximize profits.

As is now the norm, no one is held personally responsible for this completely needless public health catastrophe. A few wrist-slap fines are administered and life in America goes back to the relentless urgency to maximize private gains by any means available: fraud, deception, overbilling, embezzlement, regulatory capture, pay-to-play, and so on.

The phony PR cover for the the tyranny of self-interest is that the pursuit of maximizing profits by any means available magically benefits the public. The apologists trot out various example of planned obsolescence as “proof” that the supremacy of self-interest is the golden road to a glorious society, but all this careful cherry-picking doesn’t make the moral rot and civic decay go away.

America is doomed to decay as long as we can’t tell the difference between the public interest / common good and self-interest. The two are not the same, but we’ve lost the ability to discern the difference. Only those societies which still have a functional public interest / common good will survive; those ruled by the tyranny of self-interest will fall.

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