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Enlightened self-interest

By Steve Farrell
web posted April 23, 2007

Today, self-interest continues to be one of the world's great crimes.

It is why capitalism is backward, oppressive, and dangerous; it is why the American Revolution, its follow-on Constitution, and the "self-interested men" who brought it about were all in error; it is proof of the hypocrisy of contemporary America's "moral" vision; and reason enough for every honest and educated man to turn his back on his ancestor's self centered dreams and settle for something more enlightened, more progressive like socialism, or any other ism that promises to empower the state to compel men to live according to the compassionate values their forefathers called true, but greedily ignored.

But John Dickinson writing under his penname "Fabius," in 1788, in defense of the proposed American Constitution, has a thing to say about founding era self-interest. Says Dickinson:

Humility and benevolence must take place of pride and overweening selfishness. Reason, rising above these mists, will then discover to us, that we cannot be true to ourselves, without being true to others - that to love our neighbors as ourselves, is to love ourselves in the best manner - that to give, is to gain - and, that we never consult our own happiness more effectually, than when we most endeavor to correspond with the divine designs, by communicating happiness, as much as we can, to our fellow creatures.

This is what Adam Smith called "enlightened self-interest."

It was this same sort of enlightened self-interest that inspired men like Benjamin Franklin, for instance, to refuse to go after every patent he might have had. In reference to his scientific article on lightening rods, Franklin reflects to a contact in Europe:

These thoughts, my dear friend, are many of them crude and hasty; and if I were merely ambitious of acquiring some reputation in philosophy I ought to keep them by me till corrected and improved by time and farther experience. But since even short hints and imperfect experiments in any new branch of science, being communicated, have oftentimes a good effect, in exciting the attention of the ingenious to the subject, and so become the occasion of more exact disquisition and more complete discoveries; you are at liberty to communicate this paper to whom you please; it being of more importance that knowledge should increase than that your friend should be thought an accurate philosopher. (emphasis added)

This same enlightened self-interest explains Franklin's conviction that science ought to be practical to be of worth to mankind.

Typical of this same approach to self-interest was the frequent references to "divine providence" that flooded founding era speeches and writings. Rare it is, today, for the educational establishment to use that word in reference to founding perspectives. Yet, when they do it is most often to prove the founders as deists not Christians – or more to the point, men who believed in an impersonal God who takes no interest in the affairs of men.

This was not the case. Webster's 1828 Dictionary gives us a more accurate insight of the Founding Era definition of that word. Writes Webster:

Providence: The care and superintendence which God exercises over his creatures. He that acknowledges a creation and denies a providence, involves himself in a palpable contradiction; for the same power which caused a thing to exist is necessary to continue its existence. Some persons admit a general providence, but deny a particular providence, not considering that a general providence consists of particulars. A belief in divine providence, is a source of great consolation to good men. By divine providence is often understood God himself. (emphasis in the original)

As to a particular providence, the founding generation typically sought to see the hand of providence in every event.

Thomas Paine, the famed author of "Common Sense," was convinced that the discovery and eventual independence of America were "the design of Heaven." Said he, "The reformation was preceded by the discovery of America, as if the Almighty graciously meant to open up a sanctuary to the Persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety."

John Adams, the voice of the Declaration of Independence, and the second President of the United States solemnly observed in like manner: "I always, consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth."

Eight years prior to the Revolution, Dickenson, also, was persuaded that "Almighty God himself, will look down upon [our] righteous contest with approbation … [We] are assigned by Divine Providence, in the appointed order of things, the protector of unborn ages, whose fate depends upon [our] virtue."

Others sought out their individual providence, that is, their call from God to them in relationship to their careers, their community, and their country. If the suspicion was that it was a great individual providence, these humble men sought for greatness and glory – but not for the reasons cynics suspect. Rather, it was after the leadership model taught by the Son of God, found in the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Now don't expect any of the revisionist historians, economists, and political scientists of the twenty and twenty-first centuries to quote any of the above as emblematic of the attitudes of the great men that founded our republic, or as to why they sought out public service, rather than private riches. No, it doesn't fit their particular paradigm, a paradigm that calls America wrong, capitalism bad, and Christianity a monster. But besides, impressionable minds might get the wrong idea … or, is that the right idea? ESR

NewsMax pundit Steve Farrell is associate professor of political economy at George Wythe College, the editor of the Liberty Letters, and the author of the highly praised, inspirational novel, "Dark Rose" (available at amazon.com).

 

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