What’s in it for me?

Thomas Prosser

Reader in European Social Policy, Cardiff University

In liberal democracies, there is a need for subtle understanding of self-interest. For centuries, theories of liberal democracy have been based on the idea that the interests of citizens are distinct yet legitimate. This underpins the liberal-democratic public sphere. In parliaments and civil society, different groups deliberate grievances to advance the common good. Authoritarians reject such methods. As Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper argued in post-war years, the authoritarian sees no humanity in opponents, regarding their desires as antithetical to the common good.

Egotism and altruism have been debated on the BPP blog, Adam Oliver warning that group reciprocity can increase antipathy to outsiders. Paradoxically, recognition of different interests allows for better cooperation with outsiders, international relations scholars emphasizing that global cooperation takes place when parties compromise to achieve a greater good. If we recognize the goals of opponents as arising from legitimate self-interest, rather than as pathological, better cooperation is possible. The issue of climate change, in which trade-offs must be made, is an example; concessions are more easily achieved if the aims of opponents are considered legitimate. 

Despite the importance of appreciating self-interest, the motives of others are increasingly misunderstood; opponents are routinely depicted as selfish or treacherous. This is associated with the echo chambers of social media and moves away from political moderation. This is concerning; liberal democracy requires reasonable discourse. Relatedly, there is pressure on the institutions which uphold deliberation. Parliaments, courts and presses are threatened by demands for more direct engagement in politics, reflecting factors such as distrust of politicians and the rise of social media. Even if there is need for reform of our institutions, radical articulation of these demands is concerning; liberal democracy has more successes than failures and alternatives have poor records.

Such developments threaten liberal democracy and will not be easy to resolve. Causes are diverse, straddling economics and culture, meaning there is no simple solution. In my book What’s in it for me? Self-interest and political difference, I examine five contemporary worldviews (conservatism, national populism, liberalism, the new left and social democracy), evaluating the extent to which these positions reflect self-interest and implications for liberal democracy. 

These worldviews have advantages and disadvantages, reflecting path dependency. Conservative worldviews understand attachment to tradition and place, these being basic human yearnings, yet generate externalities which affect wider society. Neoliberal economics destabilizes community, whilst national populism stigmatizes certain others, threatening international peace. Progressive worldviews emphasize equality, freedom and peace, countering problems associated with conservative worldviews. But progressive positions can also undermine desires for cohesion, the unsettling effects of immigration being an example, taking us back to the advantages of conservatism.      

There is no ‘correct’ worldview; answers will vary across time and place. But for solutions which reflect societal interests, liberal democracy is vital; friends of liberal democracy must resist attacks on deliberative institutions. Aside from institutional battles, there is need for cultural changes; we must better understand human motives. Awareness of one’s own self-interest fosters reflectiveness. Self-interest is part of the human condition and present in all worldviews; when this is understood, positions tend to be advanced less aggressively. Appreciation of the self-interest of others is similar. If one realizes that opponents are not monsters, but humans with legitimate needs, it becomes easier to see humanity in adversaries. Such developments would civilize politics, a vital endeavour in these fractious times.

Policymakers might reflect on this. In Britain, self-interest is often seen as shameful, policymakers carefully talking around it. This is not the case in certain European countries, politics being seen as a forum in which distinct interests are openly negotiated. Paradoxically, politics tends to be more consensual in these countries. British policymakers might learn from this, designing forums which allow frank but measured articulations of different interests.