Friday, May 18, 2007

Self-Interest and Sustainability

Responding to Wayne Hodgins, who postulates that an environmentally sustainable policy can also be one based in enlightened self-interest.

I have some sympathy for the point of view expressed here, because policies that are not in some sense rooted in self-interest are generally regarded to be, not in the common interest, but rather, in the specific interest of some group of individuals.

This is the basis for numerous arguments from the more right wing side of society, the basis for the point of view that 'taxation is theft' and other such arguments. It is important to understand that even policies that are intended to redistribute wealth are not merely for the sake of redistribution, but rather, there is a particular point to the distribution that will benefit the greater population, and not merely the recipient individuals.

A good example of this is disease prevention. When public measures, such as vaccination, are undertaken, and are paid for (niminally) by the wealthy, and provided for the poor, the immediate benefit is to the poor - they don't get sick - but the ultimate beneficiary is society as a whole - there are no more epidemics. Everybody benefits, not only the recipients of the aid.

That said, there is some danger to making 'enlightened self-interest' the sole driver for any public policy.

For one thing, above a certain income level, the amount of taxation imposed will exceed the benefit gained. A rich person, for example, might be taxed more than it cost to completely insulate himself (using walled communities, etc.) from the effects of any epidemic.

Additionally, a policy based solely in a philosophy of enlightened self-interest will tend to be susceptible to a gerrymandering of that policy to promote self-interest. Purchasing environmentally friendly packaging may benefit Walmart, for example, but so will exceptions to disposal and pollution rules, so Walmart can sell products more cheaply that produce more waste.

Third, the policy of enlightened self-interest breaks down when an element of desperation is involved. If it comes to a point where supporting one's own interest is absolutely necessary - it's either do something or starve, for example - then this may force people into increasingly desperate actions, including actions that are not environmentally friendly.

For example, if a person has to burn down the rainforest to survive, he will burn down the rainforest. It is in society's interest to prevent this from happening, but it is also in society's interest to let the man starve - it would cost more to keep him alive than society would gain from his contribution.

The only choice the man has is to undertake actions - such as terrorism - that cost society more than it would lose by supporting him. But people respond to this by "refusing to negotiate with terrorists". Note, for example, that the U.S. could have given each man, woman and child in Iraq $20,000 rather than undertake the Iraq war, but no government would ever enact such a measure, even if it would more successfully accomplish the war's objectives.

It is indeed the case that acting in one's own long-term self-interest involves environmentally friendly actions. By not driving a car, for example, I am already prepared to cope with rising gas proces.

But public policy cannot be based on the same premise. A public policy, in order to be successful, will have to enact measures that are clearly contrary to the self-interest of some individuals. Specifically:

- the rich will be required to pay more than they would otherwise have to pay

- mechanisms must be put in place that will not allow people in power (the rich, say) to gerrymander the rules for their own benefit

- the needs of those in desperate straits must be attended to, even if there is no long-term advantage to doing so.

The well-being and survival of society is, in a certain sense, independent of the well-being and survival of its members. The survival of society has an impact on the well-being of future members, who do not exist yet.

Measures that attend solely to the well-being of present members will eventually be enacted such that this well-being is supported at the expense of future members. Since these future members cannot yet act, their interests do not naturally balance the interests of current members of a society.

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