What The Most Successful Euphemism In History Is Doing To Us
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.
- The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
- Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
- Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
- Bad outcomes get criticized as evidence of bad decisions, but that's not necessarily so.
- Here, poker pro Annie Duke desribes a simple thought experiment that separates decisions from outcomes.
- It is quite possible to make a very good decision that, due to external factors, results in a bad outcome.
Decide to Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide to No-Limit Texas Hold '’Em
Lauren Miranda sent a nude selfie to a boyfriend years ago. Somehow one of her students discovered it.
- Math teacher Lauren Miranda was fired from her Long Island school when a topless selfie surfaced.
- Miranda had only shared the photo with her ex-boyfriend, who is also a teacher in the school district.
- She's suing the school for $3 million as well as getting her job back, citing gender discrimination.
If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.
In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.