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Enlightened Self-Interest

Posted on 03 Apr | 0 comments
Enlightened Self-Interest

Our government is designed to be dysfunctional. The various “checks and balances” keep any one group from having too much power, making it difficult to get anything done in Washington unless there is almost unanimous agreement from it. This is by design, to prevent tyranny.

Our government is also designed to be for the people and by the people, relying on people to pursue their own enlightened self-interest. One person obviously can have little impact on the decisions the government makes. However, the founders anticipated people would form groups around their interests, and use these groups to put pressure on lawmakers. This has worked well enough for 200 years.

The trouble is that some groups develop self-interests that are unenlightened or against the interests of the society at large. One such group is the National Riflemen’s Association (NRA). Their largest donors are gun manufacturers. Thus, their rational self-interest (promoting responsible gun ownership) is put in jeopardy by another of their rational interests (having enough money to have successful influence). The NRA is most successful when they lobby for things their biggest donors desire—and then their interests become primarily those of the few big donors, and not those of the primary interest groups.

This group profits most when we are the least safe. Gun makers make most profit when people are frightened—either of losing their gun rights or of being shot. When legislation is introduced to control firearms or magazine capacity or really any aspect of gun ownership, gun sales increase significantly. Following any mass shooting or crime wave, registrations for handguns also increase dramatically. Therefore, the NRA must lobby for things that deny us our safety in order to please their biggest donors.

It is impossible to show any link between gun ownership and mortality. This is because the NRA successfully wrote and introduced legislation making it illegal for doctors to ask about gun ownership and for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to keep any such records. The NRA opposes background checks, stating they would be ineffective, and demands local governments enforce regulations already on the books, while privately seeking to defund those same organizations. Meanwhile, they agitate for harsher treatment of people who experience mental illness, while the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by people never “adjudicated” to be mentally ill. Poverty, in fact, is the biggest predictor of violence.

In Australia, a mass shooting with an assault weapon prompted their conservative government to ban that assault weapon. Their ban was effective where ours are not. It was effective because it represented the will of the people. The government sought and achieved consensus from its people that these weapons had no place in civil society. Our assault weapons bans always go against the will of the people. It is the decision by the people to respond to violence with votes against violence that reduces violence, not the laws that result from these votes.

Many of our clients act against their own enlightened self-interest by pursuing the hollow things in life—influence, power, popularity, money, happiness—at the cost of pursuing the things that make us human. Humans care about one another. Rollo May posits that this care causes grief, anxiety, all the things we feel about one another, as well as will itself. If we did not care about anything, we would be inert, a machine set to “off.” But caring only about ourselves may be worse. This is a machine set to chew, and we chew up our own lives and our own nation and our own planet, by advocating only for our own self-interest. MY right to own guns versus YOUR right to be safe, to send your children to school without fear they will be brutally murdered today. MY right to make a profit over YOUR right to have your voice heard equally. MY right to be happy versus MY OWN right to care about somebody else.

How might the NRA behave differently if its leadership indeed cared about other people? About the safety of children, about victims of violent crime in Chicago? How might they advocate for responsibility as well as rights, as their membership—whose individual dues do not match contributions from firearms manufacturers—seem to want?

The NRA is one of my favorite targets, and I think deservedly so. Another is the for-profit medical industry. How might your medical bill look different if the people deciding the prices did not have to please a board whose self-interest was a corporate one? Who did not have share-holders? Would an aspirin from the emergency room cost $24? Would an ambulance ride cost $10,000? Would three days of intensive care require you to sign over your house to the hospital? Would drug manufacturers need to advertise to open up new markets?

What would the DSM-5 look like if it were not the American Psychiatric Association’s primary maker of money, or if they were not at all interested in money?

More importantly, what might we each do differently today if we not only cared for the people around us but took the time to notice and nurture that care? Humans are, unlike the government, not designed for dysfunction. We are designed for beautiful, brilliant sanity—although all too easily lead astray.

In the end, we all have the right to care about one another. Rollo May or Victor Frankl might push a little further and claim we also have the obligation. But I will leave it up to you.

-- Jason Dias

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