A thought-provoking opinion from John Wright who lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle:
At the end of our street is a community garden. Many of the local residents have their own box in which they grow tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and so on. It works on a culture of trust and sharing. There is no fence around the garden. It is understood that if someone needs, say, a few carrots from a public box they are free to help themselves.
But recently, it has not been going well. Today I went down to get a lettuce from the box my partner and I had been tending, and its entire contents had gone. Inquiries revealed this had been happening to other people’s boxes. The problem is so widespread many have decided to pull out of the community garden altogether.
Of course, when compared to the great events that befell the world in 2016, this is hardly head-line news. But I also think it exemplifies, in a very simple way, factors that have led to some of the larger troubles of our societies.
….I’m sure we have all encountered people who take the view: “In this world, it’s each person for themselves. Only a mug would do something for the good of the community.”
Of course, it’s only a small number who take this view. But so many boxes have been cleared out that a lot of residents have given up and decided to withdraw from the garden.
What all this illustrates is just how fragile a sense of community, co-operation and the common weal can be, and how easily it can be replaced by: “It’s each person for themselves”.
Lately Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy catch-phrase, and Theresa May’s promise to “Put Britain First” in Brexit negotiations, have received a lot of media coverage.
What these attitudes reflect is a lack of community between states, not just individuals sharing a vegetable patch. For too long, some players in the international community have displayed a self-interested view, benefiting from the international community at the expense of others. Whether this be NATO members failing to meet their defense budget commitments, instead relying on the US security umbrella, or China and Japan furthering their own economic interests, running large trade surpluses while subverting the balancing mechanism of floating exchange rates, at the expense of their trading partners.
Similarly interest groups within states have furthered their own agendas at considerable cost to their fellow-citizens. Global corporations, for example, profited from offshore manufacturing without consideration of the millions of manufacturing jobs lost and ultimate hardship in their own country.
In his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations, Mancur Olson highlighted the dangers of self-interest groups within society and how redistributive struggles, where insiders manipulate the system at the expense of productive efforts, can lead to economic decline. He attributed the rise of Japan and Germany after WWII, relative to the UK, to the absence of pressure groups in the former which were largely wiped out during the war.
Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” would similarly restore growth to the US. But pursuit of self-interest on the international stage, instead of strengthening the international community, is likely to achieve exactly the opposite.