Self Interest, The Common Good, And Quests For Power

Throughout my life, I have been most happy and content during those times where I thought I was being of real service.  It’s been through the expression of generosity or altruism when I’ve felt most deeply and easily connected to people on an individual basis, and with regard to humanity in general. 

This is not news- millions and millions of people have both direct and intuitive knowledge about the strong correlations between a high sense of well being (or general life satisfaction) and being of service to others. And science backs us up! **

Okay, the science officially stops here, and my extrapolation starts. But hey, I’m one of millions who knows that thinking and acting in service of the common good seems to be a good choice for personal happiness.  So, I might get a few other things correct as I think further on the topic. I like to think so. But remember, this next part is me talking, not science (at least not at this point in time).

People who pursue things only for their personal enrichment often appear to me to be driven to great lengths to pursue more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more in ever more desperate and often more transparently corrupt quests to feel or accomplish….what, exactly? 

For a clear illustration: Think about billionaires, already completely richer than the rest of us saps. 

Any and everyone with a net worth of 1 billion dollars could already spend their days pursuing all manner of luxury and experience, the best of what the good life has to offer. These are the people with enough power and security to live as gods in complete and utter bliss on their own islands.

These are people that are already so rich, they can spend 20 million dollars a year for the rest of their lives (assuming they have 49 consecutive years left on this planet) and still die with about 20 million dollars in the bank.  Seriously, here’s the math[1]

So they already have plenty of what many of us desperately struggle for on a daily basis. 

But instead of simply going off and living the good life, and thus letting others take a shot at attaining their own good lives, these are often the very people most vigorously conducting ruthless -absolutely ruthless- quests for yet more power.

These people are hubristically determined to try to control entire countries and regions of the world for what certainly appears to be their own benefit. Michael Bloomberg anyone? Here is a man who in late 2019, obviously became determined to buy his way into the Democratic race for 2020. It’s worth noting he had been a Republican mayor a few years back who implemented (and apparently still defends) “Stop and Frisk” racial profiling.

His entry into the race clearly appeared to be about trying grab power or to further divide the Democratic field, it was not about bettering the country.

And of course this man understands, and is very good at, seeing innovative ways to grab power and money from a “power over” paradigm. He is way better than most of us at seeing and exploiting the hell out of economic opportunities, often at the expense of human quality of life. And, of course, that “might makes right” paradigm is what Western civilization has been mired in for the past few millenia.  Which brings us back to Cultural PTSD, trauma based reactions, and all the fear, greed, oppressive actions and power issues that come along with it. .

But my point here is that any truly civic minded individual would take the vast power they already have and simply support others who are already quite popular and running on platforms Bloomberg says he agrees with by virtue of his platform.  

“His” platform had clearly appropriated many popular ideas from others who were also in the presidential race. But instead of supporting those folks, he directed millions of dollars (they could use) away from them and towards himself in order to compete directly against them. He also managed to split the vote in significant enough ways to muddy the viability of the other candidates.

That utterly ruthless and driven “need” for yet more power seems to be a total embodiment of someone who has thoroughly internalized the Western values related to Cultural PTSD.  And in case there’s any doubt, that’s a pretty big problem in my book.  

So, What Can Be Done? 

For those of us who aren’t intentionally trying to dominate others through wealth or through bigotry, I think making efforts to actively become more aware of our underlying assumptions about power, and endeavoring to become more consistently conscious about how we use it is a great step, actually. 

And, after seeing the last few years of serious good faith efforts to combat racist and other bigotry not work very well at all, I also think cultivating more direct compassion for those who are on the receiving end of oppression is a LOT more helpful than trying to engage those who seem to intentionally take the attitude that they are entitled to try to dominate others. In other words, directly gathering with and lifting up fair minded people and simply behaving with compassion towards others is helpful. Contributing to mutual aid groups, or local peace organizations and poverty alleviation efforts appears to be a good avenue.

Unfortunately, the established routes of power have often become pretty co-opted. So while I fully support and encourage folks running for office on equality stances, and I also support us all in frequently urging elected representatives to adopt and promote equality in all ways, I think creating and working for grass root organizations doing direct work may be the best route at this point.

Quite frankly, how to grow compassion in those who are fully and intentionally immersed in might makes right mindsets is a big thorny problem. We have all seen the incredibly poor response people steeped in ‘might makes right’ (a.k.a. authoritarians) have had to good faith arguments made by fair minded and peace loving people over the past few years.

We’ve all seen the rise in how vocal those who seek to dominate others have become. We’ve all seen the levels of corruption these folks are willing to stoop to and capable of engaging in in order to hold and maintain power. We’ve all seen how much clinical level denial they are in. Examples abound: calling the insurrection/attempted coup of January 6th, 2021 “legitimate political discourse” is just one example of literally millions of ways those who believe in might makes right are…bringing down the quality of life for millions, including themselves. There are concentrated efforts by authoritarian prone folks to use lies, propaganda, deceit, distortion and violence to get their ways. And people in traditional forms of power are obviously not doing enough to stop the rise of it.

This has made me think long and hard a bout how to deal with those who subscribe to authoritarianism and might makes right ideas. Bluntly stated, the intentionally greedy and the intentionally bigoted are seriously holding the rest of us back from making real progress at creating healthy worlds. And, after the events of 2016 through the present, it should be clear to most of us that good faith arguments simply do not work with intentionally greedy or with intentional bigots. I’ve made a few other observations about intentional bigots in that article, that may help us think more strategically about them…

I also really do agree that we need to find effective ways to help those afflicted by authoritarian ideas, but not fully entrenched in them to leave the delusions of authoritarian thinking and come back to valuing pluralism and democracy.

But for “leaders” who are trying to force their beliefs and bigotry on us: yeah, I’m not feeling terribly compassionate toward them, nor do I feel optimistic about the likelihood of them ever being anything but obstacles who will hold us back from creating healthier cultures. Having said that, I do think studying authoritarians and bigots can help us figure out how to strategically deal with them in better ways. And that would greatly help the literally billions of us who -do- want peace and equality for all.

** See for example this meta analysis study: Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good by Stephen G. Post first published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 2005, Vol. 12, No. 2, 66–77 Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. a copy can be accessed at h….//

[1]Assume we are talking about a 50 year old billionaire with exactly 1 billion dollars net worth. Assume another 50 years of life.  50 years is 18,250 days.  1 billion divided by 18,250 = $54,794.52 dollars a day.  54,794.52 multiplied by 365 = 19,999,999.80, or about 20 million dollars a year.