No one likes to be considered selfish. Yet the natural condition of the human heart is inclined toward self-preservation, self-gain, self-assertion and on the list goes! Given the demanding character of the average citizen of our land, the characterization of the nation as selfish should come as no surprise. We all can give our fair share of stories of the selfish behavior and attitudes of others we have encountered, but it seldom occurs to any of us to apply that label to us. Selfish is what the other person is—we convince ourselves that “I am simply trying to get or keep what I believe is rightfully mine.”
There is really nothing unique about this characterization since all people in all nations are naturally more concerned about themselves than anyone else. However, given that, we have taken it to an art form here! Rather than getting into lots of statistics which support my premise (such as average charitable giving per household, average percentage of household income donated to the church among evangelicals in the United States, spending and consumer habits, growing size of homes, numbers of cars per household, amount of clothes filling our closets and so on), I will focus on two symptoms only—national self-interests and personal self-interests.
A few key indicators tell quite a story in themselves. For example, for all the language about our nation being a protector of the underdog and champion of democracy, most the accounts of our intervention in international political issues have more to do with our national interests rather than in the interest of selfless sacrifice for the good of others. Economic and energy interests, along with national security interests, all provide most of the impetus to place our energies at the disposal of the world. So in Iraq and Afghanistan, the convergence of security interests with fossil fuel interests make for a sufficient cause for international intervention. When the issues are purely humanitarian, the cause gets muddied quickly with arguments of “what’s in it for us?” Rwanda offered no compelling reason given that nothing of national importance was at stake…Zimbabwe does not rise to the level of our interests even as its people suffer and its government falters and stumbles from one crisis to the next…and so national self-interests appear to play a larger role in our commitments to people beyond our borders.
Taxes present another example of national self-interest as no one seems to be in favor of them but cannot explain how we are to function without them. Local, state and national taxation is always under scrutiny and usually is condemned for taking from the personal coffers of the individual to pay for the whims of disengaged, misinformed government leaders. We claim to be interested in the common good, but only when that means that I get to keep what I believe is mine and ask others to pay the freight for highways, schools, military costs, public safety personnel and many other government funded necessities that feel like impositions when we have to pay our portion.
Some of the national self-interests bleed over to the personal self-interest side. The NIMBY syndrome is well-documented but offers an interesting insight into the nature of selfish thinking. NIMBY advocates (“Not in my back yard”) are all for improvements until they have to pay for them or be inconvenienced by them. We all agree we need schools, but we demand that they not be built too near us lest our property values are negatively impacted. We love curbs and gutters, sidewalks and wide shady streets, but not if we have to pay assessments and increase our taxes to pay for them. Convenient roads are essential but not if they make traffic patterns more complex and congested around our part of the city. And everyone knows that garbage dump sites cannot be avoided but no one willingly welcomes them in their area. The same goes for nearly every so-called improvement we find coming too close for comfort so we cry out “Not in my neighborhood…build it somewhere else…charge someone else!”
Most of the conversations about freedom degenerate rapidly into my freedoms versus those of someone else. Of course, I appreciate their circumstances, we say, but their freedom should not be allowed to impose on me and restrict mine. Everything from our posturing about immigration to our positions on abortion usually evade the real issue—we do not want anyone else telling us what to do, nor having anyone taking a share of that to which we believe we have a right and are entitled. Tax refunds and welfare recipients shine the spotlight on a form of personal self-interest that ends up shaping the nature of our leaders because we want to put people into office who will put our interests above those of others. Pork barrel spending highlights the truth that constituents are more interested in what they can gain and from which they can profit through the hands of their leaders than they are with the general good of the nation at large.
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.” Alexis de Tocqueville
Until the nation curbs its appetites and learns to say no to its longings, it will continue the death spiral produced and perpetuated by catering to national and personal self-interests. The scriptures offer a simple solution that has been ignored but until it is taken to heart will be the answer left on the page and never the one put into practice.
Philippians 2:3-4 Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
The implications of our selfish hearted approach to life on the personal and national level are played out in more ways than we can imagine. The next two categories reveal some of how that has influenced the nation to become both an immoral nation, feeding our selfish desire to take what we want without regard to who gets hurt, and a debtor nation, mounting up insurmountable debts we can never repay all to feed an insatiable desire to acquire what we want when we want it.