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Wednesday, May 26, 2004


Fine tuning the politics of self-interest

Commentary by Adam Tanous

The other night there were two equally confounding universes playing out. On the one hand, there was my nearly 6-year-old son trying to explain to me—in vain it turns out—the otherworldly card game of Yu-Gi-Oh, with its intricate rules of strength, meanings and confusing power relationships. On the other was the evening news—another wretched day playing out in Iraq—violence, chaos and anger spilling out of the broadcast.

It occurred to me right then that I did not care if the mess in Iraq was cleared up in 30 days or two years. What I suddenly worried about was that this big, fat boot print we have put in the Middle East would be there fomenting anger in Arabs and Muslims 13 years from now, when my son is out in the world. Suddenly, I was struck with the fear that when he’s 18 huge swaths of the world—Arabic, Islamic or just Third World sympathizers—would hate him, sweet heart and all.

In the abstract, anyone can make grand statements about how great it is to have gotten rid of the little worm in the hole. I’ve done it, but always in my mind was the assumption that this whole mess would be cleaned up by the time it had any effect on my children. Now I’m not so sure that’s the case.

And I will be the first to admit that just about any stance, or decision or view I might take now ultimately filters through the prism of having two small children. I would hazard to say anyone with small children acts this way—it’s a biological thing, an evolutionary thing and, yes, a self-interest thing. It is self-interest that is linked to sustaining life, enhancing life for those we love.

Altruism is a fine concept, but, ultimately, it falls victim to self-interest. And really, from an evolutionary perspective we shouldn’t expect otherwise. Self-interest of some form or another is the engine of evolution. Nor can we expect the civic expression of evolution—democracy—to be anything but the aggregate result of the selfish interests of each and every voter.

But perhaps the nature of the self-interest can be fine-tuned, especially that of our politicians. And so with little fanfare I propose an Amendment to the Constitution, the 28th:

No Person shall be eligible to the Office of President who has not one biological or legally adopted child under the age of 5 and one the age of 15.

Silly perhaps, but no sillier than requiring the president to be 35, a natural born citizen and a resident 14 years.

So, what is the value of filial checks and balances?

Consider issues of war. The younger child ensures us that the long-term political end of a war is viable. The older child ensures that the short-term military goal of a war is justifiable.

Tax breaks and deficit spending are always fun. But if the president had a 5-year-old, would he want to saddle him with a $500 billion deficit—4.25 percent of the total economy—knowing that those future workers will be shelling out enormous amounts of money to fund Social Security benefits for the baby boom generation? That child and his coworkers will live with the fiscal equivalent of an elephant on the chest of the economy most of their working years.

If the president had a 5-year-old—his or her personhood yet to be fully revealed—would he introduce legislation that would ultimately take rights away from his child if he or she turned out to be gay many years later?

Would he take steps to limit the control his 5-year-old daughter would one day have over her own body?

A president with a 5-year-old would not open the floodgates of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, nor seek to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, nor otherwise artificially keep the price of oil down. He would let the price rise, because price pressure is the only way auto manufacturers will have sufficient incentive to develop technology to steer us away from the dead end of fossil fuels.

This is all to say that our political vision needs to extend beyond the length of one, or even two, presidential terms.

The only way I know to force politicians to do that is to hit them where it hurts, where their self-interests ultimately reside—in their hearts.

And if all this talk of evolutionary self-interest is anathema to some, forget it.

Assume God created the world as it says in Genesis. Would God create a world that was not meant to be sustained? Would not an omnipotent God have created a check on Man—who we know from the beginning was flawed—something that would ensure the future of the world?

That fine print in God’s contract might just be what is inseparable from our souls—the love and hope for children.


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