The virtue of selfishness in austerity times

Who are the really selfish people in our society? Why should I pay to support you and yours? Why can’t I keep what I earn?  Surely charity begins at home? In this guest blog Anita Biressi  and Heather Nunn explore the vexed issue of self-interest and how selfishness can be a virtue in austerity times.

Austerity measures have re-charged long-term public disputes about the selfishness of various social groups and individuals. These disputes are taking place in the context of a fierce battle for resources. We see political drives for the state to roll back (or ‘reform’) what used to be called ‘social security’ in the UK and ‘public assistance’ in the US but what is now frequently called ‘welfare’. American and British opinion formers have helped frame a public conversation in which the ‘selfish society’ is the outcome of an ‘entitlement state’ that teaches people to want instead of work. Trades union members, ‘stay at home’ mothers, lone parents, public sector workers, the disabled and so on have all, on occasion and sometimes relentlessly, found themselves labelled as selfish and socially damaging.  Websites sell bumper stickers which wryly declare: ‘work harder, those on benefits rely on you!’ and ‘welfare is not a career opportunity.’

But while selfishness is most often regarded as a trait to be condemned, in the Unites States austerity measures have also given rise to fresh calls for selfishness to be reinstated as a civic virtue, as the spur to responsible individualism, entrepreneurial action and economic growth. This is a very different brand of selfishness to that spied in the needy and workshy who draw on national resources. Virtuous selfishness is rooted in an outspoken rejection of the state in all of its forms. The embrace of ‘selfish individualism’ is quite explicit in the US where the green shoots of selfishness are springing up all around. Grassroots signs include the appearance of lone tweeters such as Selfish American and Selfish Virtues, the wider appeal of Facebook sites such as ‘Majority Against ObamaCare’ , the many college Chapters of Young Americans for Liberty and recent popular protests against ‘big government’ which have featured a vigorous defence of what’s mine is mine. As one protester against ObamaCare declared, “I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn’t have to divvy it up with other people.”. Also worth mentioning is the continuing influence of the Ayn Rand Institute (AYI, of which more below) and the growing vocalisation of Randian philosophy by fellow travellers whose numbers include notable Tea Party activists, 2012 vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, business leaders, the opinion writers of Fox News and talkshow hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Prager and Glen Beck.

So where did these validations of selfishness come from and where are they heading?

It’s not selfish to keep your money in your own pocket

The well-known neoliberal arguments for self-interest as the motor of the successful (and the good) society put forward by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and others famously gained traction during the 1980s. These arguments included a vigorous rejection of public altruism and the collective notions of social progress and  civil society which are embodied in state-supported social security. Hayek summarised the values at stake for the taxpayer in an oddly convoluted statement, loaded with negatives, designed, perhaps, to avoid the more positive but despised term ‘altruism.’

Only where we ourselves are responsible for our own interests and are free to sacrifice them, has our decision moral value. We are neither entitled to be unselfish at someone else’s expense, nor is there any merit in being unselfish if we have no choice.

Critically, Hayek underlined the sense of unfairness that some feel at being legally required to support the subsistence and well-being of their fellows. Current media commentary articulates and, we believe, actually fosters a simmering resentment that some are living rather too well from resources that others have worked hard to earn. Hard-pressed citizens are apparently demanding to know why ‘strivers’ must pay for the ‘shirkers’, why the childless must pay for universal child benefit, why the young should support the old and so on.

The work of Hayek’s close contemporary Ayn Rand was also embraced in the 1980s and her views are once again being promoted  by the American right. She developed a  philosophy of anti-altruism and anti-government which included her own re-conceptualisation of selfishness as a quality of the highest merit. More radical than Hayek, she saw no place at all for the state.  Rand’s influential novels and political journalism stressed individual will and the pursuit of personal goals as the only life worth living. Her heroes, as characterised in the best-sellers The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), were antisocial, anti-altruistic, deeply self-interested industrialists and artists. Her most famous protagonist, the social rebel John Galt  pledged: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”. Numbered among Rand’s admirers were the future Chairman of the American Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan and Ronald Reagan. In Rand’s view, it’s those who make money and who are successful in the world who risk being exploited by the needy masses and by weak, centralising  government. The recent deployment of the defiant historical American slogan ‘Don’t tread on me’ by anti-Obama conservatives highlights this perception of big government as the real jackboot of history.

Tellingly, perhaps, Rand and Hayek’s work has been embraced by business people, self-consciously ambitious students and hard-pressed individuals. This is due in part, we argue, to the ways in which they depicted particular social types and character traits as ones to be emulated or despised. Hayek, for example, condemned socialist intellectuals (by which he meant teachers, journalists and other progressive, but ‘badly-informed’, professionals) as ‘second hand dealers in ideas’. This chimed with Rand’s own description of ‘second handers’ : individuals who can’t think for themselves, who value the good opinions of their peers and who lack the will to pursue a selfishly creative and independent life  A current ARI lesson plan for High School students summarises second handers in the baldest terms: ‘those dependent persons who, in one form or another, are not productive, do not survive by means of their own mind or effort, but who, rather, survive second-hand by leeching off of others. There are many types of second-handers—criminals, family bums, welfare recipients, military conquerors, political dictators, social climbers….’ In addition, Rand’s novels cite social workers and do-gooders of every hue.

It was thinkers such as Hayek and Rand who ultimately formulated and then crucially, from our perspective, popularised the neoliberal ethos of self-interest among business people, entrepreneurs and, later during the 1980s, among politicians. Rand’s contention, made in her 1964 book The Virtue of Selfishness, that ‘there is no such entity as “society”, since society is only a number of individual men’ remains perhaps one of the most infamous declarations of confident individualism, even though very few people seem to know its source. 

Among Rand’s other legacies she helped furnish a lexicon which re-positioned self-interest as a virtue and selfishness as a positive character trait. In the neoliberal myth, dealers in second hand ideas and second raters of all kinds stand in the way of the pioneers of capitalist enterprise; the latter struggling against the growing bureaucratic state and the turbulence of the marketplace together.

Young Conservatives pave the way

In his book Ill Fares the Land  Tony Judt observes that ‘Selfishness is uncomfortable even for the selfish’. If this is so, then this discomfort seems well-hidden. Indeed, we report here that the right to be selfish is the renewed battle cry of American neoliberalism as its foot soldiers, leaders, advisors and supporters in the media seek to recoup the ideological ground lost during the financial crisis. Most worryingly, successful incursions are being made by the young and energetic through an astute use of new media and social networking sites, via blogs, talkshows and subscription web TV. The growing confidence of conservative youth is nicely encapsulated in the astonishing 2009 Youtube video ‘Young Con Anthem’. This featured two sharply-dressed Ivy Leaguers rapping out their political philosophy to an audience whose numbers ultimately reached half a million. The video featured in many news outlets including the Huffington Post and the performers Joshua Riddell and David Ruffull appeared on nationally syndicated radio stations, major web outlets and national television. Riddell and Ruffull rapped: ‘three things taught me conservative love/ Jesus, Ronald Reagan plus Atlas Shrugged.’ Conservative news outlets, young American conservative sites, Tea Party activists and grass roots anti-government protestors insist that the moral, as well as economic, tenets of self-interested individualism have never been more economically necessary or ethically defensible. We think that their message is once again gaining traction.

Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn are the authors of Class and Contemporary British Culture (2013). They are currently researching a new book called Politics Interrupted: Gender, Citizenship and Disruptive Voices (2015) for Rowman and Littlefield International.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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1 reply »

  1. Of course there is the darker side to Hayek also, the side that the neo-liberals tend to try and hide….namely that where their policies have been implemented in full…it has been done at the end of the barrel of a gun! This little letter that I came across…from Thatcher to Hayek probably gives us an idea to that darker side

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