Selfishness in austerity times
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Selfishness in austerity times

What role does the term selfishness play in current political battles?

Who are the really selfish people in our society? Why should I pay to support you and yours? Why can’t I keep what I earn? Who deserves better? Surely charity begins at home?

The increased circulation of questions such as these is indicative of the growing prevalence of ideas about selfishness in public discourse. Austerity measures in particular have recharged long-term public disputes about the selfishness of various social groups and social types; and these disputes are now taking place in the context of a battle for resources, and a political drive for the state to roll back (or ‘reform’) what used to be called ‘social security’ but is now frequently called ‘welfare’.

Both in the USA and Britain, opinion formers have helped frame a public conversation in which the ‘selfish society’ is the outcome of an ‘entitlement state’, which teaches people to want instead of work. Trades union members, ‘stay-at-home’ mothers, ‘lone parents’, public sector workers, the disabled and so on have all, on occasion and sometimes relentlessly, found themselves labelled by pundits and politicians as selfish and socially damaging. Bumper stickers carry messages such as: ‘work harder, those on benefits rely on you!’; and ‘welfare is not a career opportunity’.

Even entire nations have been condemned for their self-serving attitudes in difficult times. In December 2011 the UK was criticised for its ‘selfish nationalism’ for breaking European solidarity in seeking radical reform of the EU. Proponents of tough economic measures have also been attacked for their arrant self-interest. On the [End Page 54] European stage in April 2013 Angela Merkel was pilloried by the French Socialist Party for her ‘selfish intransigence’ when imposing harsh fiscal demands on struggling EU nations. Meanwhile the countries under pressure - Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Greece (derogatorily referred to as ‘the PIIGS’) - were themselves on the receiving end of sneering accusations of self-destructive laziness, self-indulgence and greed.

More broadly still, we have seen political ideologies and economic systems slated on the grounds that they promote selfishness and thereby corrode both society and the moral character of individuals. On the brink of the global financial crisis Oliver James’s 2008 British bestseller The Selfish Capitalist argued that unchecked materialism had spread like a virus across developed countries, producing self-indulgent, over-ambitious and increasingly damaged individuals. Critiques such as this have long been linked to formal politics, with both British and American Conservatives being condemned for their rampant self-interest. In October 2012 the conservative publication American Thinker lamented that Google had returned over 4 million hits for the search term ‘selfish republicans’.1 But Republicans have themselves returned fire, for example when Congresswoman Michele Bachmann declared on Fox News Radio that Barack Obama was ‘selfish and calculating’ for promoting the Affordable Health Care Act. Indeed in the USA, the public conversation about so-called ObamaCare has been largely couched in terms of deeply unhelpful oppositions between self-interest and altruism.

As the examples above indicate, selfishness is most often regarded as a trait to be condemned, but in the United States austerity measures have also given rise to fresh calls for selfishness to be reinstated as a civic virtue, as the spur to responsible individualism, entrepreneurialism and economic growth. This is a very different brand of selfishness to that spied in the needy citizen who draws on national resources, the public servant who agitates against the surrender of their ‘gold-plated’ pension rights, or the bureaucrat who over-taxes the hard-worker and the small business. This variant is rooted in an outspoken rejection of the state in all of its forms, and a fierce pride in independence. This embrace of what has been termed by its detractors ‘selfish individualism’ is quite explicit in the US, where the green shoots of selfishness are springing up everywhere. Grassroots signs include the appearance of lone tweeters such as ‘Selfish American’ and ‘Selfish Virtues’, the wider appeal of Facebook sites such as ‘Majority Against ObamaCare’, the many college Chapters of Young Americans for Liberty, and recent...