Mismanaging self-interest 

Mismanagement – “the process or practice of managing ineptly, incompetently or dishonestly” – Yourdictionary

Growing up in Nigeria during the 80s and 90s was tough for a lot of people. Families did all that they could to ensure their immediate basic needs were met – some parents did multiple jobs, sought connection with the right people, attempted to plug themselves within the right patronage system, applied for visa lottery etc. Ah….US visa lottery…a lot of families applied for that. Getting a member of the family to “escape” abroad, through any means necessary – visa lottery, genuine migration visa or the infamous “oluwole method” where fake passports and visas were procured at significant cost to facilitate an escape became a sort of raison d’etre for many families. Parents sometimes sold everything they had in order to fund one child’s escape with the hope that, once established abroad, they will in turn help their siblings either by arranging for them to emigrate too or send money for a better living standard until their own escape is secured. Any family without a member living abroad seemed like an oddity then. This societal reality was obvious in almost every Nollywood movie released during that period – an escaped family member becoming the hope for the rest of the family, sometimes even a whole village.

Occasionally, the frailty of human nature will sometimes lead the “abroadian” breadwinner to develop an ego turning them into an overbearing demagogue. No family decision can be made without them, drip feeding assistance to the rest of the family to ensure their snooty status is not threatened or worse taking steps against siblings that show potential to surpass them in “perceived” success. This unnecessary fight against ones own can be observed in the wider society in our interethnic rivalry, fear of domination and lack of empathy that is so easily stoked by the political elites. What this means to me is that we’re mismanaging selfishness or self-interest i.e. greed is not always good. This mismanagement is corrupting several of our societal institutions and moral values.

There’s a tiny grey area between self-interest and selflessness. Acts committed within this grey area can either be classified as self-interest or selflessness depending on the angle one chooses to look at the act from but this isn’t always so clear cut. Adam Smith’s theory of the “invisible hand” is a classic example of this grey area. The invisible hand, also known as enlightened self-interest, is a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interest of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest. In his 1776 book “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, he states: “Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it … He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” In plainer English, one might say, if I steal and especially get away with it, then others might steal too thereby creating a thieving society which helps no one.

You see, we can be selfish without greed or have an enlightened self-interest where although what we are doing is purely for our own benefit but in pursuing this we create what benefits the society as a whole. For example, my passport is in need of renewal and I need to go to the immigration and customs office to get it renewed hopefully within 30mins (postal renewal will be even more awesome). For this to happen and for it to be a standard procedure, the immigration official will probably need to be well paid, motivated, work in a good environment under decent condition and be happy to deal with me as a customer. If these conditions that should on average enable the customs officer provide service in the manner that I want do not exist, then rather than be upset at them directly, what is prudent for me is to attack the system or governance dysfunction that has created a suboptimal passport renewal process and general working condition. By pursuing what will benefit others purely out of my own self-interest, in this regard, I will also be improving my own general welfare.

I reside in the UK and currently about 45% (a little lower actually) of my earnings is deducted as tax and other social contributions by the government. Would I prefer to keep more of my earnings, of course but given what the deductions go towards and how I daily experience the benefit, I am more than happy to give up my earnings. You see, the roads are almost always in great condition, my kids can get hospital treatment whenever, an ambulance is more likely to get to me and back to the hospital on time in case of an emergency (when we had our first child). I want nurses, doctors and the police to be well paid so they can afford a good standard of living i.e. be able to afford a mortgage or rent a decent property, go on holiday, buy stuff for their kids etc. Not because I love them so much, but for my own self-interest knowing that the police officer is more likely to be in a better frame of mind to help should the need arise or the doctor and nurses are less likely to make mistakes when carrying out diagnoses and treatments because they aren’t under pressure from low standard of living.

Point is let us not mismanage our self-interest. In serving or looking out for others we are invariably looking out for ourselves. Let us all worry about the environmental issues in the Niger Delta and condemn the government’s continued inept approach at dealing with the issue, even if you don’t really love Ijaw people. You see by looking out for the ND interest, perhaps pipeline vandalism will not be so rampant. Perhaps our gas supply will be better. Perhaps our electricity and other energy headwinds will abate. By serving and looking out for the Niger Delta, the rest of Nigeria will be looking out for itself.

Let us not be weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of Nigeria – Apostle Paul.

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Mismanaging self-interest