Tag Archives: individualism

When Facts Became Irrelevant

A couple of weeks ago, a reader tipped me off to an article in a science journal, highlighting a study that traced the decline of public rationality. It was profoundly depressing

Scientists from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and Indiana University have discovered that the increasing irrelevance of factual truth in public discourse is part of a groundswell trend that started decades ago.

While the current “post-truth era” has taken many by surprise, the study shows that over the past forty years, public interest has undergone an accelerating shift from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.

The researchers analyzed language from millions of books, and found that words  we associate with logic and reasoning, such as “determine” and “conclusion,”  began a steady rise around 1850; at the same time, words expressing emotion, like “feel” and “believe” began to decline. That pattern , however, reversed over the past 40 years. At the same time, the research found a shift from what they termed  “a collectivistic to an individualistic focus” as reflected by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we.”

Interpreting this synchronous sea-change in book language remains challenging,” says co-author Johan Bollen of Indiana University. “However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as non-fiction. Moreover, we observe the same pattern of change between sentiment and rationality flag words in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed.”

Determining that a shift occurred, while a complicated research problem, is obviously much less complicated than figuring out why it occurred.  One intriguing (and concerning) factor was the finding that the shift from rationality to sentiment in book language accelerated around 2007, a date that coincides with the rise of social media.

At that point, the researchers found that– across languages– the frequency of fact-related words dropped and emotion-laden language surged, and there was a similar shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.

I suppose the two language changes–from collective to individual and from rational to emotional–could be coincidental, but I doubt it. When the focus of one’s life moves from community to individual, from “us” to “me,” the importance of exterior reality ebbs and the significance of interiority expands.

The ancient Greeks talked about a “golden mean” between extremes. They were onto something.

I’m a civil libertarian and a longtime advocate for individual rights, but I understand that concern for protecting the “unalienable rights” of the individual cannot and should not erase concern for the common good. (For that matter, self-interest properly understood actually requires a concern for the health of the community in which one lives.)

In so many ways, contemporary humans–and certainly, contemporary Americans–are encountering the considerable downside of a lopsided emphasis on individualism. The research cited in the article found an erosion in the use of reason and logic, and an increased emphasis on the individual; the”freedom lovers” who endanger others and slow recovery from the pandemic by refusing to be vaccinated are a perfect example of both.

The health of the broader community–not just public health, important as that is, but measures of justice, fairness,  appropriate and honorable governance–is ultimately the guarantor of individual wellbeing. We’ve evidently lost that insight, and with it, an appreciation for the importance of objective reality.

 

 

Now I Get It!

For several years now, I’ve been confused about the GOP’s constant warnings about  “socialism”–usually invoked to dismiss reasonable government efforts to address obvious problems and inefficiencies. Typically, the target of those accusations bears little or no resemblance to socialism.

Thanks to a recent column by one of my two favorite Nobel-winning economists, Paul Krugman (the other is Joseph Stiglitz), I now understand. 

It isn’t that Republicans don’t know what socialism is, although most clearly don’t. They  define any social co-operation as socialism.

Krugman’s column connected the dots between several seemingly disparate policy areas: gun rights, COVID vaccine denial and Bitcoin, and explained how Republican policies–really, Republican antipathy to anything that might be considered an actual policy–can all be explained by the party’s rejection of Hobbes’ famous proclamation about the necessity of society, and the very negative consequences of living in a “state of nature.” (Life becomes “nasty, brutish and short.”)

Krugman began by reminding readers of the failure of Texas’ electrical grid during the deep freeze last winter. Governor Abbott’s bizarre response wasn’t to strengthen the grid by requiring energy companies to winterize; it was to encourage Texan Bitcoin mining.

This would supposedly reduce the risk of outages because Bitcoin’s huge electricity consumption would eventually expand the state’s generation capacity.

Yes, that’s as crazy as it sounds. But it fits a pattern.

Then there’s the Florida legislature under Governor DeSantis–intent on blocking any measure that might limit the spread of COVID.

They have, however, gone all in on antibody treatments that are far more expensive than vaccines, with DeSantis demanding that the Food and Drug Administration allow use of antibodies that, the F.D.A. has found, don’t work against Omicron.

Krugman then reminds us (as if we needed reminding!) that, although America leads the world in massacres of school children, Republicans absolutely refuse to enact widely-supported, common-sense measures like restrictions on gun sales, required background checks or bans on privately owned assault weapons. Instead, they want to expand access to guns and, in many states, “protect” students by arming schoolteachers.

What do these examples have in common? As Thomas Hobbes could have told you, human beings can only flourish, can only avoid a state of nature in which lives are “nasty, brutish and short,” if they participate in a “commonwealth” — a society in which government takes on much of the responsibility for making life secure. Thus, we have law enforcement precisely so individuals don’t have to go around armed to protect themselves against other people’s violence.

Public health policy, if you think about it, reflects the same principle. Individuals can and should take responsibility for their own health, when they can; but the nature of infectious disease means that there is an essential role for collective action, whether it is public investment in clean water supplies or, yes, mask and vaccine mandates during a pandemic.

And you don’t have to be a socialist to recognize the need for regulation to maintain the reliability of essential aspects of the economy like electricity supply and the monetary system.

Reading this led me to an “aha” moment. The reason the GOP misuses the word “socialism” is that they have confused this essential social co-operation with the top-down central planning conducted by hardline socialist states. (Democratic socialism of the sort practiced in Scandinavian countries is apparently beyond their capacity to recognize or imagine.)

Krugman says that the modern American right is antisocial —not anti-socialist.  It summarily rejects any policy that relies on social cooperation. The policies he has enumerated, and a number of others, would return us to Hobbes’s dystopian state of nature.

We won’t try to keep guns out of the hands of potential mass murderers; instead, we’ll rely on teacher-vigilantes to gun them down once the shooting has already started. We won’t try to limit the spread of infectious diseases; instead, we’ll tell people to take drugs that are expensive, ineffective or both after they’ve already gotten sick.

Even the party’s weird embrace of Bitcoin falls into this category. As Krugman notes, a number of Republicans have become fanatics about cryptocurrency. He quotes one  Senate candidate who proclaims himself to be “pro-God, pro-family, pro-Bitcoin.” Krugman notes that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin

play into a fantasy of self-sufficient individualism, of protecting your family with your personal AR-15, treating your Covid with an anti-parasite drug or urine and managing your financial affairs with privately created money, untainted by institutions like governments or banks.

In the end, none of this will work. Government exists for a reason. But the right’s constant attacks on essential government functions will take a toll, making all of our lives nastier, more brutish and shorter.

We need to move America’s Overton Window back from the brink….

 

 

The Intriguing Question

Ultimately, all societies must debate and answer a fundamental question: how should humans live together? What should–and shouldn’t– governments do? What are governments for?

Yesterday, I marveled at the bilge being produced–and consumed–by the GOP. The ability to peddle and sell it comes back to the growing differences among Americans when they answer that foundational question. Michael Flynn thinks government should impose religious conformity; a number of Republican officeholders think government should favor White Christian heterosexual males ,and they all appear to believe government has an obligation to abet GOP lawbreakers.

The current mess that those prejudices have made of American governance is one thing. A more existential issue is whether the various countries on planet Earth can come together to avert the worst consequences of climate change. According to a fascinating research paper from Yale, it turns out that the answer to that (seemingly unrelated) question also comes back to the philosophical one: what do citizens of a country think an ideal society should look like? What–and how much– do they want their governments to do?

The researchers concluded that the answer to that question is in the process of change. Here’s the lede to their report (I’ve omitted the citations.)

Individuals’ attitudes toward climate change risks and solutions are shaped by personal and social factors other than knowledge of climate change alone. One such factor is differing cultural worldviews, or values regarding how society should be structured and the role of government in addressing problems.

Two important types of cultural worldviews are egalitarianism and individualism. People with a more egalitarian worldview tend to believe that society should promote equality, social justice, participatory democracy, and diversity, and are generally more concerned about environmental hazards including climate change. They also tend to favor government actions to solve societal problems, including increased environmental regulations. In contrast, people with a more individualistic worldview are more likely to believe that society should promote individual liberty, autonomy, and opportunity. They tend to be less concerned about environmental hazards and favor greater freedom for industry. As a result, they generally oppose government intervention and environmental regulations.

Our Climate Change in the American Mind surveys have repeatedly included questions over the past 12 years that measure these worldviews among the American public. Here we report on how several key measures of these worldviews have changed among registered voters over time.

Not surprisingly, the study found that Democrats and Republicans these days have very different cultural world-views, with Democrats tending to be more egalitarian and Republicans tending to be more individualistic. The researchers report that, while their data suggests that Democrats have become more egalitarian since 2008– Republicans have remained “highly individualistic.”

Democrats are more likely to support social programs, to be concerned about the wealth gap (both domestically and between rich and poor countries), and to support various government regulations. Large majorities of Democrats think that discrimination against minorities is a very serious problem, while only 4 in 10 Republicans agree.

The Yale researchers were focused on the consequences of those very different world-views on government efforts to combat climate change, and that concern is certainly appropriate. However, I was intrigued by other questions raised by the research.

The most obvious of those questions is: what happens when political identity reflects an individual’s moral commitments? As a number of political scientists have noted, the days when both parties sought votes from the moderate middle and thus erected bigger “tents”–the days when there were a number of philosophical overlaps– are long gone. Political identity has taken on the aspects–and fervor– of religion. You can compromise on tax rates when the issue is how to raise revenue without stifling economic growth; that compromise is out of reach when one party sees taxation through a social justice lens and the other sees it as theft.

Less obvious–and arguably more consequential–is a question of language, of definition of terms. I consider myself a strong proponent of individualism and individual rights, but I see those rights in the context of America’s constitutional system. I find myself increasingly appalled by positions asserted by self-described “defenders of individual rights”: the “right” to refuse vaccination (really, the right to endanger others); the “right” to access public services without paying one’s fair share/dues; the “right” to ignore laws with which one disagrees, or that are seen as an inconvenience; the “right” to deny other Americans their equal rights….

We need to draw a line between the actual human rights that a free society must respect, and selfishness masquerading as individualism.

 

I versus We

In a recent column in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo asked a question that has preoccupied me for several years: given the wide diversity of global humanity–given the sheer numbers of humans who coexist on this planet with drastically different beliefs, personalities, experiences and cultural conditioning–is genuine co-operation and a measure of community even possible?

As Manjoo puts it,

 What if we’ve hit the limit of our capacity to get along? I don’t mean in the Mister Rogers way. I’m not talking about the tenor of our politics. My concern is more fundamental: Are we capable as a species of coordinating our actions at a scale necessary to address the most dire problems we face?

Because, I mean, look at us. With the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, humanity is contending with global, collective threats. But for both, our response has been bogged down less by a lack of ideas or invention than by a failure to align our actions as groups, either within nations or as a world community. We had little trouble producing effective vaccines against this scourge in record time — but how much does that matter if we can’t get it to most of the world’s people and if even those who have access to the shots won’t bother?

As Manjoo points out, most of the multiple ways in which we are inter-related and interdependent aren’t immediately evident. (As he says, the way deforestation in the Amazon rainforest  affects sea levels in Florida isn’t exactly obvious to the man on the street). But as he also notes, quite properly, the threat posed by the pandemic is another matter. Or at least, it should be.

Sometimes, though, our fates are so obviously intertwined, you want to scream. Vaccines work best when most of us get them. Either we all patch up this sinking ship or we all go down together. But what if lots of passengers insist the ship’s not sinking and the repairs are a scam? Or the richest passengers stockpile the rations? And the captain doesn’t trust the navigator and the navigator keeps changing her mind and the passengers keep assaulting the crew?

Can we ever put the common good of humanity above our individual and tribal commitments?

Research suggests that we humans do have the capacity to come together. Manjoo refers to groundbreaking work by Indiana University’s own Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel winner. Ostrom’s research went a long way toward debunking widespread belief in the “tragedy of the commons,” and showed “countless examples of people coming together to create rules and institutions to manage common resources.” Despite an enormous amount of neocon and rational-choice propaganda to the contrary,  Ostrom demonstrated that most people aren’t profit-maximizing automatons– that humans really can act on behalf of the common good, even when that action requires personal sacrifice.

However, Ostrom also understood that the nurturing of community requires institutions supportive of the common good. And therein lies my own concern.

Someone–I no longer recall who–said “It’s the culture, stupid.” What far too few of us seem to recognize about human society is the absolutely critical role that is played by culture and paradigms/worldviews–widespread assumptions about “the way things are” supported by embedded systems and institutions and habits of socialization.

What we desperately need are institutions supporting a culture that facilitates an appropriate balance between “I” and “we”–an overarching construct that enables each individual to pursue his or her own idiosyncratic telos while still being supportive of a strong community–and a recognition of how capacious our understanding of community must be.

The tribes fighting it out today are grounded in race, religion, and other (essentially superficial) markers of human identity. At some point–and thanks to the existential threat posed by climate change, we may be at that point–we need to redefine “we” as the human race. At a minimum, we need to come together to do those things that are necessary to keep the planet we inhabit capable of sustaining human life.

At some point, we need to realize that humanity is our tribe.

Maybe it’s because I’m old, maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many instances of people who are bound and determined to pursue obviously destructive paths, but I worry that too many of us have lost the ability to see beyond “I” to “we” and to envision a healthy balance between the two.

The pandemic and climate change are tests, and so far, at least, we’re failing.

 

It’s The Culture….

The other day, I was at the IKEA loading dock. I’d bought two porch chairs, and was wrestling their fairly large and heavy boxes into my car. A gentleman, probably in his late 50s, was walking by, and stopped to help me. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me: he saw a woman struggling with something heavy and stopped to lend a hand.

I thanked him profusely, but on the way home, all I could think of was how utterly impossible it is to picture Donald Trump ever noticing that someone was struggling and offering help. (Yes, I know I’m obsessed with our insane and dangerous President…)

If there’s a moral to this non-story, it is that nice people make life better for everyone–that thinking of ourselves as part of a community of inter-dependent members who help each other out– rather than as isolated and besieged individuals– creates a supportive culture that really does “lift all boats.”

And that–strangely enough–brings me to public policy. (Pretty much everything these days brings me to public policy….)

As I was doing research for my most recent book, I looked especially at the way social safety nets around the world are constructed, and then at proposed reforms of the U.S. “system.” (I put system in quotes, because it’s a stretch to call America’s inadequate, costly patchwork of social programs a system.) I concluded that there are two major problems with our begrudging approach to a social safety net.

First, and most obviously, America’s welfare programs are inadequate, purposely demeaning and poorly functioning. There are major gaps in coverage, ridiculous bureaucratic requirements–the critiques are plentiful and easily available.

The second problem is far less obvious. Most of the programs in America’s social welfare system are designed in a way that divides, rather than unites, Americans.

Think about the difference between public attitudes toward Social Security and Medicare, on the one hand, and TANF and similar programs on the other. Social Security and Medicare are universal programs–everyone who lives long enough will benefit from them. Then think of the resentment frequently voiced about more targeted welfare programs: the government is taxing me to support “those people.”

When a tax-supported program or service benefits everyone, it tends to bring people together rather than dividing them.( I’ve never heard anyone protest that they don’t want the streets fixed or the garbage collected because “those people will benefit from a service paid for by my tax dollars.”)

One of the most compelling arguments for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is that it would be universal.  There are many other virtues to a UBI, as Samuel Hammond of the libertarian Niskanen Center has noted: the structure avoids creating poverty traps; it would raise worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it would decouple benefits from a particular employer or local jurisdiction; and It would simplify and streamlines a complex web of bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency. But it is because a UBI is universal that it is so appealing at a time when Americans are so divided.

Programs that treat all similarly-situated members of a community or polity the same tend over time to support a more cohesive culture; they avoid contributing to racial and socio-economic resentments.

UBIs and/or similarly universal programs won’t turn self-centered and emotionally crippled individuals like Trump into nice people who stop to offer help to strangers. But such policies would go a long way to easing–rather than exacerbating– unnecessary and unhelpful social tensions and divisions.

Americans have always had trouble balancing between too much “I” and too much “we.” Social supports that are universal enable a mean between those extremes: providing individuals with membership in a common polity–the “we”–and liberating them to follow their own life goals–the “I.”

A girl can dream…