Selfishness Versus Self-Interest

Another argument guardians use against direct citizen participation–one rising almost to the level of myth–is that ordinary people are just too selfish to put public interests first. Without getting too Freudian about it, that’s a revealing projection: one that seems to say more about guardian thinking than our own.

Of course, we have few reasons to care about our neighbors until we get to know them, just as we have little reason to trust our own judgment until our opinions have been tested. Such knowledge doesn’t always lead to affection or self-confidence, but it generally leads to insight; and, when coupled with maturity, to that special kind of insight called empathy. If nothing else, this chain of events—a true learning experience–shows that caring and involvement are not gifts from heaven or the endowment of an anointed few, but traits anyone can acquire when given the chance.

Here is where one of the biggest hypocrisies of guardianism becomes most evident. Guardians often complain that voters aren’t involved enough with politics and use that as an excuse to deny them direct self-governing experience. Even when representation falls out of favor (as it periodically does, seen most recently in the term-limits movement of the early 1990s) political guardians still blame voters and not themselves for bad legislative outcomes and civil disengagement. In a survey of congressional representatives, Chicago’s Joyce Foundation discovered that politicians fumed when voters insisted they take a stand on issues and then held them accountable for the consequences.60 Representatives also complained that few voters bothered to attend their “town hall” meetings, even though they acknowledged that, as representatives, they had no obligation to act on what they heard.

In the private sector, an article from this same period in The New Republic shows how political and media guardians work together, if inadvertently, to keep citizens disengaged. The piece, written by Newsweek’s Washington correspondent, Steven Walkman, titled “Too Many Choices,” lists the horrors of direct citizen participation, among them: eroded commitment (the more choices we have, Walkman says, the less we value any one of them); lost productivity (civic engagement takes too many hours away from wage labor); lower self-esteem (with nobody to blame but ourselves, we feel bad–not just mad–about mistakes); diluted party loyalty (with a legislature composed of everyone, who needs Republicans and Democrats?); and reduced group solidarity (self-governing citizens are less dependent on guardian leaders to rally around). The solution to all this, Walkman claimed, is more guardianism–to further reduce those troublesome “middle liberties” that encourage people to think for themselves. These views are discouraging, to say the least, especially when coming from an experienced journalist, but that’s not what makes them depressing. What’s truly sad is not that Walkman would choose such options for himself, but that he wouldn’t think twice about forcing them onto everyone else–the guardian creed in a nutshell.

This last problem, perhaps, is the central paradox both guardians and democrats must live with. Direct participation is not an end in itself, but a means to better things. It is the mechanism by which we citizens, no matter how far-flung or different, learn more about each other and ourselves. By assessing our individual interests, then deciding which alternatives match or transcend them, we coordinate our preferences with others and arrive at the general will.

While many fine arguments can be made against representation–from its gross inefficiencies (what is more wasteful than a new congress or legislature immediately repealing the acts of its predecessor?) to the many practical benefits that would be derived from a more politically engaged population–the one that trumps them all is the plain fact that widespread democratic learning simply builds a better society: one that is more compassionate, empathetic, cooperative, and resourceful. No one claims that guardians can’t be competent, be fair, or value reciprocity only that by forcing their rule on the demos, they inhibit the development of these qualities in others. Content with their own “parental” rights and privileges, they refuse to let their “children” grow up, and that is the biggest tragedy of all.

  1. 60. Associated Press. “Politicians Say Public Is Partly to Blame: Anonymous replies to criticism that Congress is ineffective, out of touch, cowardly.” San Francisco Chronicle, April 6, 1992.

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