Vested Interests and Cancers

Vested interest.  It sounds so solid.  So respectable.  So endowed with authority.  Like a three-piece suit with a watch on a chain.  But what does ‘vested interest’ mean?  It means ‘self-interest’. A vested interest is nothing less than a self-interest.  And nothing more.

But say ‘vested interest’ and, well, say no more.  Literally.  If I object to a zoning bylaw change that will probably lead to more traffic and tourists because that will destroy the silence and solitude of where I live, well, I’m just expressing my own personal interests.  But if the guy who runs the gas station says the change should be approved because it will be good for business, well, that’s different.  He has a business – he has a vested interest in the zoning bylaws.  So suddenly his opinion, his desires, count more.  It’s magic.  It certainly isn’t rational.

Because it isn’t different.  I want silence and solitude; he wants money.  We’re both expressing what we want for ourselves, what we’re interested in – we’re both expressing self-interest.

“But he has all that money invested in his business!”  Which just means he spent a lot of money expecting a certain future.  So?  I did too.  I bought a house, expecting a certain future.  ‘Invest’ is just a business word for ‘gamble’ – you do X hoping for Y in the future.

But say ‘business’ and the red carpet rolls out.  (Rather like saying ‘religion’ or ‘kids’.)  “I’ve got a business to run!” can legitimize almost anything.  Business is important.  Business gets special treatment.  It gets the right of way.  Quite literally – we are to step aside and let business proceed unimpeded, unchallenged.

I think this is partly because business has this ‘social good’ thing going for it.  Business is good for the economy.  It creates jobs.  It provides us with much needed goods and services.  Yeah right.  Business ‘provides’ jobs the way people ‘provide’ labour.  There’s no charity or social service on either end.  Business people expect to be paid for those goods and services.  They don’t contribute their stuff to society; they sell it.  So business isn’t doing anything for the social good, for society – it’s doing for the self.  Despite attempts to convince us otherwise.

For example, “We’re just following consumer demand.”  But society is not just a conglomerate of consumers, so even if you are just following consumer demand, you’re still not acting for the social good.  Depending on what exactly consumers demand, you could be doing just the opposite.  (And note the use of ‘demand’.  It makes it sound like their behavior is required.  It’s not.  They have a choice.  But ‘demand’ is far more compelling than ‘desire’, implying that resistance, their resistance, is futile, implying that they are without power here, and hence without responsibility.  So even what they do is correctly identified as self-interested, well, they can hardly be blamed.)  And of course consumers ‘demand’ lots of things, but companies provide only those that generate profit for the company – that is, for the owner/s of the company.  (And there’s another one: “Our shareholders demand high returns.”  It’s yet another way of saying ‘Hey don’t blame us, we’re just doing what’s demanded of us, and we’re not doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it for our shareholders.’  As if you don’t own any shares.  As if pleasing shareholders isn’t in your own interests…)  Actually, companies provide things that they expect to generate profit even if consumers don’t demand them: if people really wanted product X or service Y, companies wouldn’t (have to) spend millions of dollars on advertising (to persuade them to buy it).  Quite simply, many of those goods and services are not ‘much needed’.

The CEO of a bank once said “Return on equity is [an] important measure of a banks’ success.”  Not the amount of good it does, not the amount of happiness it creates, no, these things don’t matter.  Success isn’t even justice, it isn’t even getting back what you put out, no, success is getting back more than you put out.  Self-interest.  Literally, interest.  For oneself.

The same CEO also responded to a question about the obligation to create and maintain jobs with “If we are to attract … we need to create exciting new job opportunities … to keep top talent … and move forward …”  Embarrassing is his assumption that the question referred just to his bank – he understood ‘obligation’ to mean obligation to the bank, to the interests of the bank.  I don’t think the phrase ‘society as a whole’ is even in his vocabulary.

Lurking somewhere in here is the notion that those with a vested interest in something will take better care of it, and that’s what justifies the greater weight to such interests.  But first, that assumes a very ego-centered view of human beings; some of us are capable of taking good care of things for others.  Second, it assumes a certain wisdom on the part of the self in question; there are a lot of people who don’t take good care of stuff even when it’s their own.  Third, self-interest tends to be short-term interest, if only because the self is a very short-term enterprise.  And much of what we’re talking about is long-term stuff, like natural resources, so taking good care of it requires a long-term perspective that by definition is precluded by self-interest.  For example, that same CEO referred to “every stage of the life cycle” as “right through to start-up and then growth”.  Excuse me?  What about stasis?  What about decline?  They are stages of the entire life cycle.  Unless, of course, you’re a cancer.


1 comment

    • Kayleigh on September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm
    • Reply

    I found your blog on ibtp. I like what I’ve seen so far! Thank you for pointing out the heinous. A lot of it is stuff I’ve thought about in the past. It’s comforting to know that there are others out there to share the burden.

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