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John Harkins '58 (left) and Sid Waldman
John Harkins '58 (left) and Sid Waldman

A Limit to "The Politics of Selfishness"?

John Harkins taught at public schools in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania before becoming principal of the Lower School at Germantown Friends School. He also served as head of school at the Friends School in Mullica Hill, N.J. Harkins currently serves on the Haverford Corporation and with the Friends Council on Education. He is clerk of the board at the Orchard Friends School in Riverton, N.J. John Harkins and his wife, Meg, live in Philadelphia.

John Harkins: Hello, Sid. I really enjoyed your book and was surprised, as I read it, to gradually realize that you were writing more about government than you were about politics.

Sid Waldman: Hi John: I did write more about government, about the problems the country faces and what we should do about them, than about politics, which is about how to do that and how politicians maintain support. That is because I think the problems the country faces are our prior concern, that is, what our purposes should be. It is because of the limits of what our politics can achieve, based on a careful study of Congress, the presidency, the public, and public policy, that I focus on the problem of excessive self-love or selfishness and on the possible role of morality in overcoming some of these limits.

JH: Well, it was a constructive emphasis, particularly in the midst of the current campaign for the presidency. I have come to think of politics as the process of campaign war chests, sound bites, opinion polls, and speculations abut electability. Karl Rove and James Carville come to mind. Your book focuses more on the questions of appropriate laws and decisions for our society - the problems the country faces, as you say. I see that as the topic of government rather than politics. Plato comes to mind.

SW: Plato and other political thinkers focused on the good society and government, as I do. I consider this a very practical focus since America would be better off if we focused on our most failing schools and on the plight of people in other countries and what we might do about it. These are practical considerations as they may affect the quality of our lives. Politics is supposed to be about solving some of the problems the country faces. The focus on campaigns including money, sound bites, etc. reflects the media's notion, especially TV's notion, of what will be entertaining and get good ratings. The real question is how and whether we can break out of that pattern. Perhaps as people face real problems that are not being solved, problems that affect their perceived interests, they will demand something else, but it is so easy to "escape from freedom," that is, elect people to office and expect them to solve problems just as it is easy to care only about oneself and one's family.

JH: Is it another situation of misguided self-interest that lets us tolerate easy-to-watch newscasters and lets broadcasters produce money-making fluff? I have a question about your critique of self-interest. You describe the ways in which self-interest weakens government and thereby hurts us all. So, it would be better if we were less influenced (or should I say governed?) by self interest. Isn't there a circular argument buried in there? It would be in our self-interest to have less self-interest?

SW: I am speaking about excessive self-interest, an excessive concern with yourself and your family. I think such a concern is legitimate and even valuable, but it is excessive in that it ignores others too much. A more balanced approach would be in our self-interest. It would also involve a change in who we are, a change in ourself, so that what we see as our self-interest changes. This would be in our self-interest both as we saw it and also in the way you describe, that is, we would all be better off and, I believe, would feel better about our lives and our country.

JH: So the key word is "excessive." Your answer brings Plato back to mind. It sets the goal of being better people with a better society. I noted that this grounding of good government in moral, and perhaps religious, motives was a crucial part of the conclusions in your book. Are such motives essential for good government or a good society?

SW: I believe such motives are essential for a good government, a good society, and a good life. There is only so much people in political office can achieve without a change in our motives (including theirs). Even if they want the public good, what they can take on is limited by our limits. I focus on morality and religion in the book because I think each could be an aid to us. I of course believe in the separation of church and state, but religion can be an important force for good or ill. It depends on us, on the choices we make.

JH: I understand that you served as a congressional aide and a congressional fellow. How did these experiences relate to politics and government and scholarships and teaching? What came first? What parts are still lively in your life?

SW: I was a congressional intern and later a congressional fellow. I had the good fortune of working for two members of the House who were interested in the public good and who also focused on how to get things done politically. I saw how the Civil Rights Bill was passed in 1964 and how energy deregulation was passed in 1977. Both involved a lot of politics and government in the better sense. My experience in Washington began to alert me to how the Congress sometimes did the public good even when it was not popular, here I am thinking about energy legislation of the 1970s. I pursued that theme into the 1990s, but saw that certain problems could not be solved that way, thus the idea of the limits of politics because of our self-love. All of this affected my teaching, and I have learned much from discussions with my students as I have from research and careful observation. It all started with my interest in government back in college, which led to my career and teaching.

Scholarship and teaching are still active in my life. I love what I do. I also have occasionally participated in politics, usually by offering advice to people running for office, which they sometimes take and sometimes disregard.

I am currently working on what makes people moral, compassionate, able to really see, and realize "there but for fortune go I," all of which emerged as important questions as a result of the work I did on my book. I feel blessed that I have these interests and the energy to pursue them.

JH: Do your students provide you with a window into the future? Are they interested in better government? Are they active in politics? What do they reveal to you about the prospects for our country and our society?

SW: Students are interested in better government. Some of them are active in politics. They define politics in different ways so some focus abroad, others at home. I have known many students who are fine people, and I am happy to have them be citizens and future leaders. They will continue the work that we and those before us have done. I am not pessimistic about the prospects for our country and society. Realistic I hope yes, but pessimistic no.

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