Selfishness: Virtue or Vice?

Ever since Plato, political scientists have based their ideal societies on their ideal people. Thomas Hobbes and Ayn Rand have the same view of human nature; these two philosophers are psychological egoists who believe that man always works for his own self-interest. Yet, their definitions of the good society are very different. Hobbes and Rand both believe man is inherently selfish and creates government to protect his own interests, but Hobbes wishes to control this tendency by building a strong state which assimilates its members and limits individual rights, while Rand wants to nurture it with a weak state, numerous civil liberties, and a capitalist economy.

Hobbes says that a group of men in a state of nature, a situation in which there is no society, compete with each other for resources and inevitably resort to violence. Some men are physically stronger than others, but the weak can defeat them with clever schemes. Eventually, the people realize that war extended indefinitely will kill everyone, so they create a social contract. They choose from among themselves a sovereign to whom they give their liberty in exchange for protection from each other.

Hobbes’s egoism probably made him uncomfortable because it clashed with his religion, Christianity, which teaches man to love his neighbor as himself. Thus, his “Christian Commonwealth” represses selfishness. He says the state should resemble a human body; each member is a part which contributes to the whole, and the sovereign is the head. Monarchy is not necessary, but it is expedient; the benefits of a good king outweigh the costs of a tyrant. The sovereign cannot kill his subjects, but otherwise, he has free reign. It is impossible for him to commit an injustice against the citizenry because they are all parts of one body, and the body does not attack itself. The Ten Commandments of the State teach children to love king and country above all else. Private property is unimportant; rather, individual economic activity should feed the body. The elimination of egoism facilitates Hobbes’s good society.

Rand also thinks selfishness is humanity’s primary motivation, but unlike Hobbes, she considers it man’s highest virtue. The heroes of her novels are completely egoistic; their greatest loves are their work and their wealth. Her villains are social workers, philanthropists, and churchmen. Rand would find Hobbes’s “body politic” analogy revolting. In her utopia, Atlantis, each individual is an end to himself rather than a cell in a body. Political power is divided between legislative, executive, and judicial branches. An individual has total control over his own life as long as he doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others. The state protects citizens’ liberties and property rights as well as their lives. The military and the police force are its only responsibilities. Citizens make their fortunes in an economic system of laissez faire capitalism and don’t care about social welfare. Business regulation is unnecessary because two people pursuing rational self-interest will never have a conflict. This society thrives by nurturing selfishness and giving it channels of expression.

In many ways, a political scientist is like a doctor: he determines that his patient is ailing, identifies the causes for these ailments, and prescribes a remedy to restore his patient to health. Thomas Hobbes and Ayn Rand both realize that society is imperfect and needs healing, but their diagnoses are radically different. Hobbes says that selfishness is the disease; Rand says it is the remedy. Thus, we see that political science concerns much more than government institutions; it is rooted in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, as well. All political scientists want to achieve what is good for man, but until they agree about what “good” and “man” are, they will never craft coherent public policy. Each government will be a compromise between a hundred different interests; no citizen will be completely satisfied with his state, but he will accept it as long as it doesn’t collapse. That is the true measurement of a successful state: survival. Perhaps, the only piece of political philosophy we need is this: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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