My definition of ‘enlightened self-interest’ is letting the other person out of the telephone kiosk so that you can get in. Some people think it is the only reason why anyone does anything that looks unselfish or altruistic. I think that is a gloomy view and I don’t share it. But just now I want to talk about the question of buying books at full price in the local bookshop. Rather than buying them more cheaply on the internet. And why that really is self-interest:
Because I like having a nice, bright bookshop, full of real, physical books that I can touch, right here in the High Street. And I like having real people there in that shop who love books and can talk about them, and who do other things like acting as box office for our amateur theatricals. And I like meeting other people in the shop and talking to them. Sometimes I like actually touching people, if you can cope with that level of candor. I think all this enriches my life and the life of the town. And although you can’t measure that kind of enrichment, I see it as beyond price, and I am absolutely prepared to pay for it.
‘Self-interest’, you see. And ‘enlightened’ because the benefit is a little way down the line and not immediately apparent.
I recently heard a young man describing the way he shops for books. What he does is browse along the display cases at Waterstones, or wherever he chooses to pop, using his iPhone to photograph the spines of the items that appeal to him. He then trots off home and uses some clever app to order the same items from a vast warehouse which treats its workers like slaves and doesn’t pay tax.
He didn’t put it exactly like that but that was the gist. He seemed to expect us to be impressed by the modest amount of money he saved in this canny way. He certainly wasn’t ashamed of his behaviour. Far from it. We were supposed to be impressed, and by the fact that the books would usually arrive by courier the next day. And indeed that is amazing.
But several things struck me as I listened: First, with a job in the city and the mortgage paid off on his London home, he was not the person of my acquaintance most conspicuously short of money. Nor did he seem to be the one who was physically least capable of carrying books. But more than this, he was obviously proud of his new shopping pattern and saw it as not only thoroughly modern but also symptomatic of his prudence with his money. And this chap, let me make it quite clear, was one of the nicest and most personable people you could hope to meet. Kind to animals and small children I know for a fact. Probably concerned about bees.
But it’s a mystery to me that anyone can live like this. It must be obvious to them that bookshops in the high street will not exist in future if people in general start to behave in the same way. Perhaps they think that isn’t their worry. That it isn’t their responsibility. That it’s the future and it’s happening anyway and they’d be silly not to take advantage of what is likely to be a fleeting opportunity.
Well, I think we’ve got to fight for bookshops, and quite a lot of other enrichments of life of a similar order. Things whose benefits to us and to our society are as unmeasurable as they are beyond price. And often not immediately apparent. And one way of fighting is to convince people that it is in their interests to look beyond the immediate price on the label and to think more deeply and in the longer term. ‘Enlightened self-interest’, you see. Letting people out of the telephone kiosk so that you can get in. Looking ahead a little to see the consequences of what you are doing.
Not very fashionable, not very smart. There’s no app for it. Who needs a telephone kiosk anyway these days. But let’s start recommending that sort of thing to people at parties. It’s all part of the dull but rather enlightened business of making a better world for the future.