Self-Interests Rightly Understood

“It's not an endlessly expanding list of rights — the 'right' to education, the 'right' to health care, the 'right' to food and housing. That's not freedom, that's dependency. Those aren't rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle.”

This quote has erroneously been attributed to Alex De Tocqueville, French author of Democracy in America.[7] It was actually part of a “Liberty Manifesto” by P.J. O’Rourke of the conservative Cato Institute. O’Rourke added: “There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.”[8] Regardless of its origin, this basic argument is often used to challenge those of us who would claim rights that are not clearly enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.


Alex de Tocqueville was a Frenchman who visited America and wrote his classic book in the 1830s, some 50 years after American independence. His purpose was to learn why the American democracy had lasted longer than had been expected by many European intellectuals. De Tocqueville was clearly aware of the potential threat of big government. He coined the term, “tyranny of the majority,” meaning the ability of a democratic majority to use government to impose its will upon those in the minority. He believed it was easier to escape the wrath of a tyrant than the “wrath of the people.” The only means of protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority is through a consensus to secure a basic set of rights for all.


I respect the right of others to disagree, but I believe the 9th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution clearly states there are rights other than those explicitly included in the Constitution that are to be protected and preserved “for the people.” Among those rights are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as is clearly expressed in the American Declaration of Independence. I believe we have a basic human duty or responsibility to secure these rights for all. I believe that securing these basic rights would require some minimum levels of education, health care, food, and housing—not as matters of charity but of rights. The Declaration of Independence also clearly states that a primary purpose in forming a government is to provide a means by which people can work together to secure the basic human rights of all.


De Tocqueville believed Americans were committed to the common good because of a belief in what he called “self-interest rightly understood.”[9] He thought the success of the American democracy was deeply rooted in religious values that tempered the pursuit of individual self-interests. He wrote: “It is held as truth that man serves himself in serving his fellow-creatures, and that his private interest is to do good… They boldly aver that such sacrifices are as necessary to him who imposes them upon himself as to him for whose sake they are made.” Early Americans did not deny the right of everyone to pursue his or her self-interest, “but they endeavored to prove that it is in the interest of every man to be virtuous.” They understood that it was in their self-interest to temper their right to “do as they damn well pleased” with virtue. Obviously, the dominant culture of America has changed, and our democracy is suffering the consequences.


De Tocqueville was generally in favor of the expansion of rights, particularly voting rights. However, I suspect he would have opposed any attempt to expand rights in the absence of the consent of the majority. We have no consensus in America today supporting rights to education, health care, food, or housing. Minimal government programs to meet such needs tend to be labeled as social services or “welfare” and are treated as discretionary spending in government budgets. Even “entitlement programs” such as Social Security and Medicare are under continuing attacks as being unaffordable – not as rights to be protected but as unearned government benefits. Assistance for the less able or less fortunate is treated as discretionary acts of charity—whether privately or publicly funded.


Americans seem to have an irrational fear that ensuring economic rights would mean economic equality—there would be no reward or incentive for those who work hard and earn more. However, securing rights to basic economic necessities for all would not preclude anyone from earning and accumulating far more than necessary to meet their basic needs. The Declaration of Independence was not written by socialists or communists. A vastly disproportionate distribution of income and wealth is a clear indicator of disproportionate economic opportunity, but economic rights does not suggest equal wealth or income. Opportunities to become wealthy would not be significantly constrained if people in the U.S. consented to ensure the economic rights of all. Adam Smith wrote in his 1776 classic, Wealth of Nations, “improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks” should never be regarded as “an inconvenience to the society… what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole.”[10]


The richest 1% of the people in the U.S. currently own nearly half of the nation’s wealth and the richest 10% own more than 75%--while the bottom 50% own less than 1%. Even the poorest among the top 10% are millionaires.[11] The wealthiest among us would barely notice the cost of ensuring the basic economic rights of all. Even those in the American middle class have more than they actually need for the pursuit of happiness. Meeting the basic economic needs of all would remove any justification for a continuing sense of economic injustice—other than pure jealousy. The economic rights of all would have been secured, and we could begin bridging the great social and political divide.


Our differences regarding economic equity and justice are far more about ethics than economics. I dwell on economics here only because I am an economist. In fact, all of the major issues that divide us as a nation are issues rooted in conflicting moral and ethical values. The wounds that divide us cannot be healed unless the American people can find a new consensus regarding a common set of moral and ethical principles to guide us into the future.


A consensus doesn’t mean that we must all agree completely, only that a supermajority of us agrees to be guided by a specific set of shared ethical values rather than remain a deeply divided, dysfunctional nation. As long as we insist on giving our individual, narrowly defined individual self-interest priority over the basic needs and human rights of others, we will remain a deeply divided nation. To heal the great divide, we must return to the early American understanding of “self-interest rightly understood.”


John Ikerd