03/24/2011 06:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can We Still See and Serve Our True National Self-Interest?

The biggest threat to America's future is not foreign competition. It is the political paralysis that keeps us from rising to the challenge of foreign competition.

There are many sources of this paralysis. Judicial decisions ban limits on political spending. Gerrymandering disenfranchises the political center while empowering the political extremes. The fleeting attention span of our tweeting era fuels a poisonous partisanship focused on the short term of the next election, and not the long term of the next century.

But by far the most significant source of America's political dysfunction is our collective failure to see and serve our true national self-interest. Our self-interest as Americans is no longer rightly understood.

It has not always been this way. This is evident from a re-reading of perhaps the most insightful and enduring of all the books on American politics, Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. A reform-minded French aristocrat, Tocqueville spent nine months touring America in 1831, and then went home to record his acute observations in a work that remains in many ways timeless.

Tocqueville identified what he described as "the principle of interest rightly understood" as the basic way Americans at that time were going about fulfilling the promise of individual human freedom by practicing democracy. What Tocqueville called "the principle of interest rightly understood" is a principle of rational national self-interest that takes the broader and longer view. It is a view that ranges both far afield and far ahead by seeing our self-interest in our broader as well as our narrower needs, and in our needs tomorrow as well as today.

During those early years of our national experiment with self-government, Tocqueville saw this principle as enjoying "universal acceptance" in America. He saw the commitment of the American people to this view of their self-interest as "clear and sure."

I doubt he would do so today.

Today, we Americans seem increasingly incapable of taking the broader and longer view of our self-interest. Nowhere is this more evident than in our bipartisan refusal to face the hard realities of our national deficits and our national debt.

We are much in need of more jobs at better pay that will produce a higher standard of living for all Americans. To succeed, in the long term, in improving our standard of living, we must meet the challenge of the new competition we face in a changed world economy. To meet this challenge, we must act now to rein in the runaway federal spending that, if not controlled, will consume our future.

President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission has concluded that, to control federal spending, we must trim $4 trillion from our anticipated national debt by 2020. Most of those savings must come from the popular entitlements programs that already consume more than 40 percent of all federal spending and that are becoming ever more costly every day --Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Yet the current Congressional debate is focused on a small sliver of the federal budget that does not include these exploding entitlements, and the president himself pulled his fiscal punches by procrastinating on this central issue in his latest State of the Union address. One of the few examples of a bipartisan consensus in Washington is a shared conviction that the voters will punish in the short term any politician who dares to tell them the truth about the hard choices we face for the long term because of our deficits and our debt.

I once asked a group of supporters of Ross Perot in my former Congressional district in Florida how they recommended achieving their worthy goal of a balanced budget. They had a ready reply: cut my salary and abolish foreign aid.

Because I had made my tax returns public, voluntarily, they knew that I had already taken a pay cut to serve them in the Congress. They did not know, until I told them, that foreign aid comprises only about one percent of the federal budget--or that much of it is required by federal law to be spent in the United States on U.S. goods and services.

This explained, I asked them, "What else should we cut?" They replied, in unison, "Whatever you do, don't cut our Social Security or our Medicare."

No doubt many of those same former constituents of mine are giving the same reply now to my successor in their new guise as members of the Tea Party.

A recent poll found that, when people were asked what percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the average response was 27 percent. Polls consistently show, too, that, though Americans want their leaders to reduce deficits and contain debt, they oppose, by large majorities, many specific proposals to reduce the future costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and to ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security.

American politicians are much inclined to quote Tocqueville. If my former colleagues in the Congress can find a few minutes also to read Tocqueville, they will understand why he saw "the principle of interest rightly understood" as essential to the long-term success of democracy.

Tocqueville thought the greatest long-term threat to democracy in America would be the tyranny of a majority seduced into self-defeating short-term thinking by excessive democratic largesse. He saw "the principle of interest rightly understood" as democratic voters' "chief remaining security against themselves."

In the 1830s, he saw this principle checking "one personal interest against another," and producing "daily small acts of self-denial" by individual citizens for the greater good. Sadly, this seems much less so today.

As Tocqueville taught us, we all want freedom, but we all also want to eat. We want to get the government out of the way -- unless we want the government's assistance in our life and in our own pursuits for our own benefit. The costs of this fundamental democratic contradiction add up -- for all of us.

Are we Americans still capable of self-denial through shared sacrificed for the long-term greater good? Do we have leaders willing to take the political risk of telling us what we don't want to hear about the painful choices we face in federal spending? Are we willing to listen to them -- and to support them -- if they find the courage to pursue our true self-interest?