History’s most successful(4) euphemism(1) is making original idiots(2) of us. “Idiotic” first meant the opposite(3) of “political,” but they’re almost synonyms(5) now.
1. Here are definitions of the euphemism and its unpainted partner:
“pursuit of one's own advantage or welfare, especially to the exclusion of all others”
“devoted to...one's own advantage or welfare to the exclusion of regard for others”
One defines unattractive selfishness, the other “rational” self-interest. That’s euphemy.
2. “Idiot” comes from idios, Greek for “private.” Ancient Greeks considered it crazy to live only for private interests, since no human can rationally thrive alone and private success depends on a healthy city.
3. Greek for “city,” polis, is the root of “political” and in that sense the opposite of idios/private.
4. Sanitized selfishness is so successful it organizes most of our lives. Built into our political and economic machinery it frames even how the unselfish live.
5. Calling a decision “political” now often means that a better option existed, but powerful interests opposed it. This must amuse America’s enemies. How idiotic must the “political” kludges within Obamacare, or the tragicomedy of 54 futile attempts to repeal it, look to them?
We’ve lost something since Tocqueville defined Americans’ “self-interest rightly understood” as “an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other and...willingly to sacrifice [for]...the welfare of the state” Even since Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you.”
A "free market priesthood" and their “greed is good” doctrine has steered this un-public-spirited turn (abetted by Reagan’s “government is the problem”). Their hope that self-interest pursued in freer markets can fix all problems (political and moral included) is perhaps the last un-laughed at utopian ideology. Profit seeking in real markets often delivers neither efficiency nor “the best outcome.”
Many only half grasp self-interest’s meaning. Its two-part definition includes your advantage but also a disregard for others. The “self” in self-interest is there precisely to separate your self-only interests from your shared interests. So if your ethos promotes me-only-myopia, why be surprised by problems like avoidance of pollution costs, or tax evasion, or rent seeking? That’s all just logical self-only-maximizing. This is "flaw enforcement," systemically amplifying the worst in us.
Every workable way of life must balance self-only interests with broader (especially public) interests. The "free market priesthood" believes that happens automagically.
Self-only systems can’t work. Unless someone manages public interests and prioritizes the health of all the bodies (people, markets, communities etc) we commonly depend on. This requires no saintly selflessness, only the rightly understood logic of (re)enlightened self-preservation. We’d be idiots not to return self-only-ness to its rightful infamy.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.