Time for the Democrats to become ‘rationally selfish’

In order for a market-based economy to operate efficiently, consumers and business must behave according to self-interest.

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Thomas Nast cartoon, 1880s. Public domain image.

WASHINGTON, May 8, 2017 – There is a large political divide between the American people. Election after election, the result is a fairly evenly-divided Congress in which the generally liberal Democrats and the generally conservative Republicans face off against each other without budging, resulting in a consistently gridlocked legislative body.

While moderate Republicans generally seem willing to find a compromise with the opposition, however, Democrats are steadfastly against the GOP’s positions and apparently have no intention to compromise. Driving this trend, there is a key philosophical reason why the Democrats absolutely refuse to budge.


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In our economic system, there is an underlying assumption that all people are motivated primarily, although not entirely, by self-interest. Economists refer to this behavior as rational selfishness. In order for a market-based economy to operate efficiently, consumers and business must behave according to self-interest.


In theory, once necessary self-interest needs are satisfied, individuals can then concentrate on the needs of others resulting in behavior consistent with their views of social responsibility. In other words, once the majority of people have taken care of their needs, they can more easily satisfy the needs of the truly needy.

As an example, after boarding an airplane and securing yourself into your seat, the flight crew routinely provides some safety instructions. They tell us that if there is a problem with the oxygen in the cabin, masks will drop in front of each passenger. They instruct parents with small children to first secure their own mask and then secure the small child’s mask. These seem to go against every parents’ basic instincts. We always put the needs of our children ahead of our own needs.

But the reason behind this requirement is clear. If the parent attempts to put on the child’s mask first and the child squirms and resists, it is possible the parent could lose consciousness during the struggle. Then the child and the parent would both be at risk. On the other hand, if the parent secures his or her mask fist, then no matter how much the child struggles, the parent is still capable of resolving the situation satisfactorily. The result is that neither the parent nor the child are at sustained risk.

The Democrats don’t seem to understand this concept. They insist on placing the needs of the small minority ahead of the needs of the majority. And that is precisely why they are so steadfast in their positions. The Republicans, they argue, have their priorities wrong. This applies to the three major issues at the political forefront today.

The Democrats steadfastly support the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare). The current law places the needs of the uninsured, the very sick and the elderly as its first priority. Then the remaining 80 percent of the population is considered. In our system, this simply can’t work. The GOP-led House of Representatives has just passed a bill, the AHCA, that correctly prioritizes medical care by placing the needs of the majority as its first priority.

The Democrats take a similar position on immigration. They are most concerned with the 11 million people who are in this country illegally, but also concerned about the millions of people who live in Central America in deplorable and often very unsafe conditions. To address the latter issue, they want the illegal “undocumented” immigrants arriving here from these countries to stay in the U.S. permanently.

Further, Democrats want America’s borders permanently opened to allow untold millions of immigrants to flood into the U.S. “They want to build walls. We want to build bridges” Democrats proclaimed during the last presidential campaign.

However, rationally selfish behavior would insist that America’s primary concern should be the safety of American citizens first and foremost. Once the country’s own citizens are secure and once our long-suffering domestic unemployment situation is remedied, then a comprehensive immigration policy can be formulated regarding who is permitted to enter the U.S. and under what conditions. Such a policy would at last permit a divided nation to compassionately resolve the current problem of illegal immigration.

On the issue of federal income tax policy, virtually every taxpayer believes the tax code should be simplified and constructed to encourage economic growth, leading to greater opportunities for all Americans. Democrats want to place the needs of the lowest income earners and the most vulnerable first, however, and then consider the rest – the majority – of American citizens.

A rationally selfish policy would benefit the majority of Americans first, before considering the needs of the minority. One solution would simply be to allow those who earn income to keep their income instead of attempting to transfer income away from those who earned it and redistribute it to people who have not earned it. This makes little economic sense.

Social programs should have a lower priority than growth-oriented tax policy. President Trump has offered a tax plan consistent with these goals, but the Democrats oppose it because it could potentially harm lower income earners. However, history has consistently taught us that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Most Americans have been traditionally empathetic toward the truly needy, making it uncomfortable for many to admit they are rationally selfish. Yet it seems to be human nature that, in a freedom-oriented society, not only does rational selfishness explain functional economic behavior. It also produces very positive results.

If the Democrats could make an effort to see this, our national social and economic problems could easily be solved.

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