The War on Human Nature

For nations as for individuals, pretending self-interest doesn’t exist is perilous.

by Victor Davis Hanson // National Review Online 

At some critical point, everyone makes choices based on incentives and his own perception of self-interest. Somehow the Obama administration has forgotten that natural law.

A therapeutic sense of self-sacrifice is fine in the abstract, but in the concrete such magnanimity causes far more harm to the innocent than does a realistic appraisal of self-interest and a tragic acceptance of the flawed nature of man. The theme of the present administration is that it possesses the wisdom and resources to know better what people should do than they do themselves. From that premise arose most of catastrophes that have befallen this administration.

Consider the logic of Obamacare — a protocol that we lesser folk were supposed to learn about only after the bill was passed, in the expectation that eventually we will surely like it, although we are not able to know that yet.  If you use medical care infrequently, you supposedly will rush to sign up to pay more for it, so that those who will pay less can use it more. I wish such idealism were innate to the human character, but nothing suggests that it is. Does providing more coverage at less cost to more people somehow lead to lower costs for all participants? If so, the entire history of capitalism would have to be rewritten. Is it true that the more you try to get onto a website and are stymied, the more you will redouble your efforts to log on? If that were true, wouldn’t Amazon rig its website to fail 20 percent of the time?

Would employers hire more full-time employees in order to up their health-insurance costs, or would they keep their work force small enough that the federal guidelines will allow them not to provide coverage? And how would those incentives affect overall job growth? Will employers decide to forgo more of their profits so that the nation’s unemployment rate will stabilize?

Consider the news that the IRS improperly refunded $132 billion to people who falsely claimed earned-income tax credits. Add in the fact that about 45 to 50 percent of all Americans already pay no federal income tax. Then factor in the idea that conservative groups were more likely to be targeted by the IRS’s tax-exempt division than other nonprofit organizations. What natural lessons do many citizens learn from the IRS that might govern their future behavior? Are they likely to feel a greater need to report cash income, or to worry about unauthorized income while on federal assistance?

Did administration explanations about Benghazi and the IRS scandals help reassure the American people that what the president said about Obamacare was likely to be true? Does serial disingenuousness finally ensure remorse and a return to veracity?

Does promising a new transparency and an end to lobbying and to the revolving door between government and the private sector at least display a heartfelt desire to change the system, even if in reality there is no end to any such influence peddling? Is it better to promise great things and then break those promises than to have never promised at all? Do we operate on the T-ball philosophy that effort and happy talk can substitute for achievement? Does continuously blaming a prior president drive home the message of his culpability, or appear tasteless and reveal a sense of inferiority?

Do the unemployed more eagerly seek employment when they are provided increases in food stamps, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and assorted housing, legal, and education subsidies, or are they more likely to remain on public assistance, to become more indifferent to full-time employment, and to augment their subsidies with off-the-books cash income?

If Americans receive essentially zero interest on their passbook accounts, are they more or less likely to save? If they do save, are they more or less likely to rush into the stock market seeking any return over 1 percent? And will that desperation make stock offerings more or less accountable? Are zero-interest-earning savers in their 60s more or less likely to stay on their jobs? If the former, will that more or less retard employment of younger others?

On matters of borrowing, do serial discussions about forgiving credit-card debt, student-loan debt, and mortgage debt encourage more Americans to borrow what they cannot pay back? Does the idea of forgiving debt persuade struggling American consumers that they must continue to meet their debt obligations and make timely interest and principal payments? Do people assume that they must be meticulous in making their payments so as to ensure that others need not be?

Does a president’s expression of racial solidarity with a figure of similar race involved in an ongoing civil or criminal court case lessen racial tensions? Does such editorializing serve to remind Americans that the law and politics are two separate spheres, or that the accused is assumed innocent until proven guilty?

Does ignoring provisions in the law — such as the individual mandate or legal requirements for insurance plans in Obamacare, or details of immigration law — persuade Americans in their own lives to follow the letter of the law?

Does suggesting that corporate officials, doctors, and other members of the affluent classes are corporate-jet owners, limb and tonsil loppers for profit, and fat cats, who have reached a point where they have already made enough money, encourage Americans that wealth creation is a positive development?

Does assuring the country that the successful businessman did not really build his own operation encourage others to take such entrepreneurial risks, or does it dissuade them? If someone makes profits in business or a profession, can he expect to be praised for his success or targeted as making too much more money than others? And what effect on the general economy does such an attitude portend? Would it be better to succeed without government or to fail in partnership with it? Do we more greatly admire a private fracking company, or Solyndra?

If Chrysler bondholders are not paid back as quickly as are union creditors, despite having contractual preference, does that make investment companies more or less likely to buy bonds for their clients? Does it make unions more or less likely to make demands on companies that they are probably ill-equipped to afford?

Does curtailing federal leases for new energy production encourage gas and oil companies to expand their efforts to find energy through public explorations? And does bragging that American fossil-fuel production has reached record levels, even as you have sought to discourage this, persuade companies to keep producing more home-grown energy?

Does announcing serial amnesties and praising the DREAM Act during an election campaign encourage a larger or smaller number of foreign nationals to risk entering the U.S. illegally? And would they do so with more or less conviction that their immigration problems were largely political rather than legal? Is amnesty seen as proof of a nation’s tolerance and thus a reason not to abuse immigration law, or proof of its moral confusion and paralysis, which encourages still more illegal immigration?

Does the employment of therapeutic euphemisms — workplace violence, overseas contingency operations, man-caused disasters — reassure Islamists that the United States is now their friend, and recognizably so by our extreme sensitivity in our choice of language? Or does our new vocabulary suggest to enemies that a country that won’t identify them by name will not punish them?

Did leading from behind in Libya impress our enemies by our magnanimity? Or did it encourage France and Britain to take the lead elsewhere rather than waiting for the United States to do so, on the idea that the U.S. wishes to rotate its once-prestigious leadership role?

In Syria, did warning Bashar Assad about “game-changer” red lines, but then taking no action, reassure him of America’s mellowness and therefore convince him to moderate his conduct in gratitude? Or did such flip-flopping convince Assad to press home his attacks with the assurance that the United States could not decide what it was going to do?

By objecting to Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, welcoming the election of Mohamed Morsi, and then criticizing the coup and subsequent junta of Egyptian military officers, did the U.S. remind Egyptians of our disinterested fairness to all parties, or convince them that we were erratic, confused, and not to be trusted?

Did consideration of watering down U.S.-induced sanctions against Iran in order to initiate discussions with Teheran reassure allies that they had been right to follow the United States’ lead and ratchet up the embargo on Iranian oil and commerce? Did it encourage the Iranian government to negotiate in good faith? Will Iran now cease its nuclear program, given that the United States is dropping sanctions, providing incentives, and showing its eagerness for a settlement? Will Israel and Saudi Arabia sigh in relief that Iran is now postponing its program in exchange for the end of sanctions — thereby cooling down tensions in the Middle East?

Did simultaneously announcing withdrawal dates and surge numbers for Afghanistan encourage our Afghan allies that we were flexible, and mitigate the extremism of the Taliban on the principle that they, just as we, were tired of fighting?

Did radical Islamists tone down their extremism on the news that the Obama administration had pulled out entirely from Iraq and wished to close down Guantanamo? Did the Cairo speech in front of Muslim Brotherhood grandees remind them why and how the U.S. and Islam were partners?

Have Israel’s enemies been encouraged to negotiate with the Jewish state by the news that America is now a disinterested broker in the region and no longer takes sides between the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Israel?

Does Recep Ergodan’s special relationship with Barack Obama encourage the former to protect human rights in Turkey — on the principle of being positively influenced by friendship with a U.S. president?

Did bypassing the United Nations in Syria, exceeding its resolutions in Libya, and weakening them in Iran strengthen the resolve of the U.N., or at least ensure a positive reception there for future U.S. initiatives?

Does lecturing Vladimir Putin about human-rights abuses mitigate them? Did welcoming him into the Syria discussions provide stability for the region? Is Putin thankful for U.S. acquiescence to his initiatives and therefore more likely to respect us for our belated sobriety?

There is a difference between the way we wish the world would work and the way it unfortunately does. We should know that tragedy from our own often-selfish lives in which we make decisions based on our perceptions of advantage. The problem with ignoring the role of unchanging human nature is that usually someone other than the utopian gets killed, runs out of money, or must live with the chaos brought about by the actions of the better-off, who are permitted by their money, leisure, power, and influence to dream that we are something that we are not.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.

Share This