Alexis de Toqueville

Today, we are hosting a party at our Kelly Avenue offices, inviting one and all to come on down, enjoy the sunshine and huddle in tight groups of happy neighbors thrilled to be congregating on the coast in spring. Come on over, we want to shake your hand.

April Fools.

Today, most of us will be ensconced in home offices or waiting till the lines die down at the grocery store or walking our dogs in strict adherence to the 6-foot rule. Today, and for days to come, we expect to be locked in a life-and-death battle with an enemy we can’t see. That is the situation for the vast majority of the world’s 7.5 billion humans.

Of course we’re aware that some of you are treating the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order as a sort of extended spring break. We know that thousands of Bay Area residents descended on the coast expecting to find clear sailing to wide open beaches. Instead they were stuck in traffic on their way to crowded open spaces that would leave all of us at greater risk of contracting a potentially deadly virus. Perhaps worse, some businesses right here on the coast have been flouting the order to make a buck while the competition is closed.

So, what do we do about people who break this social contract? Where did folks get the idea that their own self-interest trumps societal good?

Well, as long as we’re all learning from home, please dust off your high school textbooks. Today’s lesson: the meaning of “self-interest.”

First, please, open to the chapter on Adam Smith. He was the 18th century Scottish economist who championed laissez-faire policies. In his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” Smith wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In other words, you are able to FaceTime with Grandma today because Apple shareholders wanted to make a buck.

Assuming that is true, we will soon be awash in $100 N95 masks and hospital ventilators that cost as much as a new Mercedes.

In the event that sounds less than ideal, let’s add the modifier “enlightened” to Smith’s self-interest. For that, we need to read Chapter 8 of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 work, “Democracy in America.” Actually, for de Tocqueville, enlightenment can be found in “rightly” understanding what self-interest means.

“The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial,” he wrote. “I do not think, on the whole, that there is more selfishness among (Europeans) than in America; the only difference is that there it is enlightened, here it is not. Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest ...”

The outcome of our nation’s efforts to combat novel coronavirus will depend upon whether Smith or de Tocqueville was right about us. We will survive and thrive in direct proportion to our enlightenment. That is a scary thought in the age of Donald J. Trump, but it’s all we’ve got.

Class dismissed. Let’s set up a Zoom happy hour.

— Clay Lambert

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