A tutor came into the coffee shop and loudly declared she was spending the last $9 in her bank account on coffee and a pastry. She hoped she had enough left for gas.
Because of the volume of her voice, and apparent tendency to overshare, I learned a lot about her in the 45 seconds she was in the shop. She also had to be at her next tutoring assignment in five minutes.
Unfortunately, I never learned what subject she tutors. I hope to God it isn’t math–the precursor to balancing your bank account or leaving for appointments with enough time to get there, factoring in the time it will take to spend your last $9 at a coffee shop.
The point is, this lady has a few obvious lessons to learn, but her profession is teaching others.
Okay maybe I am being a little harsh on her–maybe she’s a genius in literature or history. But most people are testaments to the fact that they don’t know how to act in their own self-interest.
The knee jerk reaction may be, then we need others to save them from themselves! But the only people available to do so are also people. They have the same tendency to watch the things they do for themselves blow up in their face.
Yet the most likely person we can benefit with all our knowledge and action is still numero uno. If you have a 50/50 record for making the right decisions for yourself, your score will be even worse when it comes to making decisions for other people.
The way I see it, there are two sides to self-interest.
On the one hand, there is the classic Randian selfishness. In novels like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand portrays the heroes doing what is best for themselves, without bothering with the people who would hold them back.
The idea is that everyone else is trying to force you to behave in a way that hurts you. You have no obligation to others and owe them nothing. You are not their slave. Do what is best for you, worry about yourself, and to hell with everyone else.
I basically believe this is true, but there is a flip side as well.
It is more compassionate to be self-interested.
It is better for others if you just look after yourself.
The person you are most informed about is you. You can’t count on anyone to know what is best for you better than you do.
And yet still, how many times have you ended up doing the wrong thing for yourself? How many times have your actions, meant to benefit you, had unintended negative consequences? You enroll in a great expensive college, only to fail out (or gain a useless degree) and be left with mountains of debt. Or you invest in a promising company called Enron.
On the other hand, how many times have bad occurrences had a net positive benefit? You get fired from a job, so you start a successful business. You get dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend, just to find someone better.
True, plenty of people do not really know what is best for them. And that is all the more reason to suspect they don’t know what is best for others. Many of them are voters, social crusaders, volunteers, and politicians. Some of them recommend you go to college or buy a certain stock.
If they can’t always make decisions that benefit them, why would we expect they can make decisions with a net benefit to others? After all, they are even less informed about other people’s desires and situations than their own.
Of course, there is a whole host of other problems with trying to tell others what is best for them. Many people actually have nefarious motivations and are veiling their ambitions with charity. They tell you what is best for you because it is really best for them.
Then there is the enabling type of help. A mother is always there to provide a place to sleep for her junkie son. Maybe if he spent some nights on the street, and couldn’t rely on a home cooked meal, he would feel the full weight of his self-harm.
The bottom line is that you just don’t know what is best for others, and others don’t know what is best for you. This is why individuals should worry about themselves, and stop trying to prescribe the best course of action for others.
This might sound hypocritical coming from me.
After all, I regularly spout off about how society should be, and what improvements could be made to the law, business environment, and so on.
In this very article, I am basically prescribing what I think is best for you. Maybe I am wrong, and you should be told what to do. (But in such an instance, you would be acting in your own self-interest by recognizing your own inability to make good choices. That means by not following my advice to ignore advice, you would have made a decision for yourself, thus following my advice to ignore people who try to tell you how to live. But I digress.)
But think about it from another perspective. I am saying all these things because if society were that way, it would be better for me.
When I say I want to reduce crime, I am saying I don’t want myself or my loved ones to be murdered. I honestly do believe gun control has worse effects on crime, but it hardly matters to me. Having a gun is taking my protection into my own hands. I don’t need to solve society’s crime problems, I have solved my own. If my home is broken into, I have recourse. I don’t have to rely on others to save me.
Other individuals are also able to take their safety into their own hands. They don’t have to buy a gun, they could get a security system, or choose a good neighborhood to live in depending on their assessment of their own circumstances.
How many people have gotten robbed, raped, or murdered, waiting for the police to show up? Do-gooders told them guns are dangerous, and that the police are there to save them. A robust police force created a false sense of security, and anti-gun campaigns convinced them not to own one. Because of others’ good intentions, they were a victim when they didn’t have to be.
Same goes for lower taxes. Lower taxes are a benefit to me, so I write about the economic stupidity of high tax rates.
And the reverse is that some people certainly “benefit” from higher taxes because they get handouts. But again, is a life on welfare really a benefit? The social justice crusaders say it is, but do they live in the ghettos, and see people trapped by the system?
Yet I am basically wasting my time trying to make societal changes which affect me as an individual. In the first example, I used direct action to affect my likelihood of being a victim–I bought a gun. In the second instance, I used indirect action to try to lower my taxes–I tried to rally the public by educating them. What do you think was more effective?
Harry Browne discusses direct versus indirect action, in his 1973 book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.
Indirect action is trying to influence society in order to benefit you (and you think others). It’s trying to rally the voters to your cause or trying to get a majority of your society to change their behavior or become educated about some issue.
Direct action is changing your own behavior to solve a problem. Things like moving to a place with better laws, or buying a gun for protection.
My time would be better spent taking advantage of tax loopholes I can exploit already in place. That’s one of the reasons I moved to Florida from Massachusetts. Same with the personal protection. The gun laws are better here.
I have the ability to do what is best for me without having to change everyone.
And I don’t know if those things are best for everyone. Maybe if they move to Florida they will get skin cancer. Maybe if they buy a gun they will accidentally shoot themselves.
Others need to make that assessment for themselves to do what is in their own best interest.