Tag Archives: individualism

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…

My Country ‘Tis of Thee….

If you are looking for an uplifting, “ain’t we great” post appropriate to the 4th of July, you probably need to stop reading now.

I began my reading this morning with Kurt Anderson’s Op Ed in the New York Times, on the downside of liberty. Anderson revisited the historic American tension between individualism and community, and concluded–in concert with many other contemporary observers–that Americans have confused a robust defense of individual rights with a wholesale abandonment of our civic obligations to the wider community. He argues that we have lost the ability to distinguish between individual rights and self-interested greed.

Anderson points to a cultural phenomenon. Thanks to the recent weather, I have been pondering a structural one.

As anyone who isn’t spending time in the arctic knows, we’ve been having an unprecedented heat wave. Much of the nation has also been battered by ferocious storms, and television news has been featuring visible evidence of the damage–especially shots of the downed power lines responsible for a massive loss of electricity. As of last night’s newscast, more than a million homes remained without power. Elderly people and children, especially, are at risk without air conditioning.

My question is simple: why don’t we bury our power lines? My answer is equally simple: because we have a political/economic structure that privileges short-term savings over long-term quality–a structure that rewards those who are penny-wise and pound foolish.

It costs more up front to bury our utilities. It’s cheaper–initially– to string lines. But not only does burying those lines improve the appearance of our cities and towns, it is much cheaper in the long run. It doesn’t take extraordinary storms to down the lines; more predictable weather also takes a toll. Over a period of years, utilities will more than save the extra dollars spent to bury the lines and consumers will enjoy more dependable service.

This same “penny wise, pound foolish” mind-set permeates our public services. Go to Europe (yes, I know, it is heresy to suggest that other countries might do some things better than we do) and walk on granite pavements that have lasted longer than most of our cities. Expensive to build, much less expensive to maintain and replace. Look at the current rush to sell off public assets–Toll Roads, parking meters, even the City-County Building–rather than spend what is necessary to maintain those assets for future generations.

In business, the triumph of the shareholder and manager over the entrepreneur-owner has meant that the next quarter’s bottom line is privileged over the long-term best interests of the enterprise. It’s more important to return an extra twenty cents per share now than to invest in improvements that will benefit the business ten years hence. In politics, it has always been the case that “long term” means “until the next election.” So we have the ridiculous spectacle of the State of Indiana returning $100 to each taxpayer rather than applying those funds to necessary improvements in education or infrastructure that won’t yield such immediate gratification.

Maybe it’s fitting that we have fireworks on the 4th of July. Children love fireworks, and we seem to have become a nation of children.