“National interest” justifies every crime in the book, right? Well, not exactly. You and I, and our neighbors are the nation, and if the latest scheme hurts all of us, then whatever the billionaire or the politician wants is not in the national interest.
National interest is implicit in the Declaration of Independence, i.e., that interest consistent with government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Such interest, by definition and logic, precludes interest of, by, or for some lesser group at the expense of society as a whole or for any short-term purposes at the expense of society’s long-term interests. If that is the standard voters want their elected representatives to adhere to, then it will of course be up to the voters to measure the performance of their representatives against that standard and hold them accountable.
Socially conscious voters should not find this too onerous a burden. Will a three-trillion-dollar war to eliminate a nasty dictator by trashing the oppressed society, leaving it hostile, impoverished, lacking modern infrastructure, beset by state and private terrorism, and on the cliff-edge of civil war be in the national interest? It may clearly be in the private interest of the military-industrial complex, leaving the leaders of that particular faction with annual salaries in the $25 million range, but what about the national interest?
Is the destruction of public sector unions defending the wages and benefits of teachers, firefighters, and police in the national interest? The impoverishment and political crushing of workers—public or private—is clearly in the private interests of billionaire corporate executives seeking passive laborers, bought politicians, and public welfare in the form of access to national mineral, air, and water wealth, but what about the national interest?
These calculations do not appear beyond the capacity of the voter. Indeed, the amazing mid-winter protests by tens of thousands of outraged Wisconsin voters and the on-going national 99% demonstrations illustrate that many voters understand very clearly where the public interest–i.e., the common interest that they share with each other–lies.
The national interest would be better defended, however, if such extreme attacks on the national interest were prevented by an aware citizenry rather than being tolerated by a naively clueless citizenry until the damage done becomes so painful that it can no longer be ignored. Trusting the pirate class as it literally steals your house out from under you while you fight its wars for profit drinking the dirty water it condescends to provide you is a very expensive way of running a democracy.
A useful first step toward proactive defense of democracy, i.e., to defense of society’s common interest, is to teach everyone some fundamental concepts for evaluating political events in terms of this “national” or “social” interest to help voters hold the many utterly ridiculous claims of self-serving partisan spokespeople up to a logical standard. However this may be accomplished, no one should graduate from high school without the ability to articulate a reasoned answer to the question: “What is the national interest?”
Certain attributes logical follow from the general definition of national interest as the long-term interest of society under a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Power maximization for the glory of “the nation” at the expense of the people, who become cannon fodder, is a classic definition of “national interest” that is excluded. Rather, national interest for a democracy requires the support of an environment conducive to good governance and the maintenance of a high quality of life for all.
There is, then, no difference whatsoever between the “national interest” and the “social interest,” a phrase that does not but should exist: nation = society. No “nation” exists independent of the people who live there.
A government of laws defending civil liberties follows logically. By this line of reasoning, wars for oil at the expense of constitutional guarantees of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” becomes automatically suspect. Government bailouts of financial firms that not only give priority to those rich corporations rather than the citizens they impoverished but also come with a guarantee that criminal fraud by the officials of the very corporations receiving welfare will be ignored and the officials will be allowed to escape all responsibility for their behavior also should raise eyebrows. The excuse that the corporations are “too big to fail” is so oversimplified and evasive as to constitute an outright lie.
A high school education should suffice to enable voters to make this distinction, and high school social studies teachers should be held to account for providing this degree of education. One need not master William Black’s brilliant analyses of U.S. financial corruption to understand the practical implications of a national policy that protects billionaire bankers from being held accountable for a policy of mortgage fraud that has robbed the homes out from under millions of homeowners, many of whom were surely making an honest effort to make their payments.
National interest entails actions and policies conducive to the rise of an economically secure and industrious population of educated people. The need for well paid teachers, police, and firefighters logically follows. The need for a foreign policy that gains the respect of the world and minimizes the need to employ brute force for survival also logically follows, leaving any foreign policy based on force automatically suspect. Third, the need for national policy designed to create an environment conducive to long-term national welfare logically follow. In Neolithic times that meant working together for the good of the tribe; in today’s conditions, it clearly means working for the common welfare of all humanity. A U.S. corporation that looks the other way while its factories in China pollute the global commons by pouring chemicals into the local Chinese air or rivers simply to offer cheap consumer goods to Americans thus clearly fails the test of acting according to U.S. national interests. Both the real people in charge and the “corporate persons” magically discovered by the current Supreme Court need to be held criminally responsible for thus poisoning the commons and thereby harming the national interest.
The debate over national interest cuts to the heart of democracy and will surely last as long as nations last; just as surely, the debate will always get complicated fast. But citizens can learn to carry around a few rules of thumb to help them perceive the common interest of all. When a millionaire asks you to sacrifice while his income is rising, raise your eyebrow. If the “crisis” does not require the millionaires to sacrifice, then it’s just not a crisis. When a politician claims that peace can only be maintained by starting a “preventive war,” that little red “liar flag” in your head should start flapping in the breeze. War to prevent war is not “preventive” war; it is war. A little common sense can go a long way toward exposing partisan efforts to fulfill private agendas at society’s expense.