A broad breakdown in societal trust has undermined the idea of a common good that can be served by the collective disposition of resources. Voters trust neither government nor most individuals in society to fairly pursue the common good. Instead, they see both government and individuals as fundamentally selfish and out for themselves, not others.
This view of human nature has been a consensus until recently. That consensus can be traced back to the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a 1,200 novel that, in essence, advocated the unfettered pursuit of self-interest as the organizing principle for society. Despite the fact that the book became a best-seller, not many critics and intellectuals took it or its thesis seriously at the time. Who could possibly believe that a society based strictly on selfishness could work?
That skepticism was obliterated in the next several decades. One of the key blows was struck by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, whose 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, argued that the gene is the fundamental unit of natural selection and has only one imperative: successfully reproducing itself in competition with other genes. We (and other animals), as bearers of these “selfish” genes, will therefore carry those traits — and only those traits –that help these genes reproduce. Dawkins implied that was all you needed to know to understand human nature, an idea that quickly led to an explosion of selfish gene-based explanations for every aspect of human behavior.
Then, in 1980, Milton Friedman, with his wife, Rose, published Free to Choose, a no-holds-barred polemic in favor of self-interested individuals making “rational”, unregulated decisions and against anything that interfered with this process, especially government action. So, in a powerful conjunction of economics and evolutionary biology, Ayn Rand’s glorification of selfishness gained the imprimatur of serious science. Being selfish was just human nature and should not be fought. Indeed, any attempt to do so was bound to do more harm than good. Thus was the original reaction to Atlas Shrugged turned on its head. Who could possibly believe that a society based on anything other than selfishness could work?