Voting Labour, Joey Tribbiani and enlightened self-interest
Ever since Theresa May called a ‘snap election’ as a result, in her view, of the House of Commons repeatedly blocking Article 50 and Brexit by having the temerity to vote for it, I find my self fixated with the question of self-interest. I’m not referring to the concerns of Tory MPs sweating through their suits at the thought of doing porridge for election fraud. I’m not even thinking of May’s own selfishness in seeking to establish a one-party-state.
No, I’m thinking about myself and all of you. Let me explain.
Remember that episode of Friends, you know the one where Joey and Phoebe get into an argument about whether true altruism actually exists? Joey, after getting a gig doing a telethon for PBS, angrily tells his friend that there’s no such thing as a genuinely selfless act, after she points out he’s only doing it for the exposure.
Here Mr Tribbiani is raising an important ethical and philosophical question. Why do people do good things? Funnily enough Richard Dawkins, ethologist and evolutionary biologist, has weighed in on the side of Joey on this very important issue, hypothesising that selfishness is hardwired in the DNA of all living creatures. The point being that apparent altruism by any organism is simply programmed behaviour, which aims to increase that creature’s chances of passing on their genetic code. It’s just selfishness really.
Take the honey bee for example. It is known that bees often die after they have used their sting. Yet bees will often carry out ‘suicide’ attacks to repel invaders of their hives, thus saving their colony. Surely this is evidence of genuine altruism. Not so says Joey and, as it happens, Dawkins. Although it doesn’t know it, the humble insect is simply acting in a way that will improve the survival chances of it’s kin and by extension ensuring the genes it has in common are passed on.
Where’s all this coming from? Well, I only bring it up because I am being repeatedly told that, in advocating socialist ideals, I’m not living in the real world. I’ve seen the interminable vox pops on the nightly news and social media status’ opining that while Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s ideas are all well and good, life just isn’t like that. Instead the views espoused by Labour belong to some mythical utopia.
People only vote in their own self-interest, they say, so anyone standing on a platform of policies that serve the ‘greater good’ is ultimately doomed to failure. If you’re one of those people, I can honestly see where you’re coming from. However, I can’t help but think that you are missing the point. As Joey and his fellow traveller Richard Dawkins would attest, apparent altruism may actually be rooted in selfishness anyway, albeit subconsciously.
In other words advocating a programme based on fairness and social justice, while seemingly dreamt up by tree hugging ‘commies’ and ‘do-gooders,’ is actually rooted in pure unadulterated selfishness. Think about the life you want to lead for yourself. For now let’s be completely selfish and ask, how much is the pound in your pocket really worth if society is collapsing all around you?
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that any of us could become ill or develop a disability. Should that happen to you, wouldn’t you want there to be a robust benefits system that ensured you don’t end up on the streets or dependant on food banks?
Again, thinking only of yourself, do you not hope that you will live out your days in dignity. Of course you do and why shouldn’t you. Trouble is you need a welfare state and a National Health Service to guarantee that.
If you have children you surely want them to have a decent education and to grow up happy, healthy and safe in a world as free of crime, war and disease as is humanly possible. This may be because you want to see them grow older and give you grandchildren or to see your family name live on. Most likely it is because you feel a bond with them, stronger than anything you have ever encountered in your life. You love them and seeing them happy and thriving fills you with joy.
Is that selfish? Joey from Friends and Richard from Oxford would say yes. However, your selfishness is actually of the enlightened variety, because it serves both you and your community as a whole. Happy and healthy children are, after all, more likely grow up to be productive and upstanding members of society.
However, the ‘selfish’ ambitions you harbour can only be achieved if society is organised in such a way as to make the dreams you have for yourself and your family, a reality for everyone else and theirs. Are you with me yet?
Normally, when preaching to the converted, I would now be bringing up the words of socialist thinkers like Marx, Engles, Hardie and Benn to justify my argument. However, I am aiming my words beyond the walls of my usual echo chamber. I am appealing to the tired and huddled masses, weary of politics and politicians and those who perhaps vote Tory because they feel it’s the best choice for them and their families.
So instead of Lenin and Marx, I am going to quote to you the words of a man widely regarded as the father of capitalism, Adam Smith. Writing in his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations, Smith had this to say on the subject of political economy,
“Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society? The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain. Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.”
Leaving aside any critique of his work and acknowledging that Smith could not be described as a socialist, it’s clear that even he could see that it is in the interests of the nation as a whole to seek the betterment of the “greater part of every great political society.” Now please ask yourself is that the path we are on today?
Look at the positions being taken by the respective parties in this election and consider which of them is articulating a programme that will truly contribute to the wealth of the nation. Who is advocating policies that will serve your self-interest, as Smith, Tribbiani and Dawkins would define it.
Indeed you may also ask which of them is promoting a form of myopic selfishness, or greed, that will ultimately lead to conflict and division. Whose manifesto is likely to lead to lost productivity, due to breakdowns in cooperation and disenfranchisement through underemployment or redundancy and thereby squander the wealth most of us create?
I would argue that this is what the Conservatives are offering. It is a route to unenlightened self-interest, what I call the me society. This is not a vision even the father of capitalism himself, Adam Smith would support. As he points out, how many of us can truly thrive in such a world? How sustainable is the wealth and health of such a nation, if it is based on an ever increasing sense of injustice and discontent amongst the many?
So, I am not asking you to be charitable. I am not even asking for you to care about those other than your kin, as nice as that would be. I am actually asking you to be selfish and appealing to you to consider voting Labour in this election. I am doing so precisely because it is only their policies that are rooted in your own enlightened self-interest.
It’s not complicated really. Even Joey Tribbiani can see it.