The Elephant in Every Room

I ended my last post by suggesting that individual freedom is the driving force in just about every social change. Today, I’ll flesh out that argument a bit more.

First, the evidence: personal liberation has been at the heart of nearly every liberal or leftist achievement since the 1960s. The civil rights and feminist movements, while not necessarily complete, made great strides. Likewise, sexual autonomy has taken off dramatically. Yet when it comes to collective action, the left has stalled. Despite the efforts of many politicians and community activists, poverty remains entrenched in many American communities, and inequality has only grown. Unions have gradually lost their power. The environmental movement records most of its victories on an individual level, with consumers embracing green shopping but minimal political action on such issues as climate change. Universal health care came about only through appeals that every person deserved the right to some level of care, and remains far less centralized than Europe’s single-payer systems.

On the right, it hasn’t been any different. The past half century has seen decreases in tax rates, deregulation, and the proliferation of free-market economic theories that rally against state intervention. Most liberal social issues have done well over the past half-century, yet gun control legislation rarely goes anywhere, with the Second Amendment as the guiding light. The conservative ideals under duress are far more communal in nature: traditional family structures, church attendance, and perhaps the predominance of “traditional” American culture generally associated with white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

There are some issues that don’t line up so evenly. On abortion, for example, both sides can play the freedom card: the left demands rights for women to control their bodies, while the right demands rights for the unborn. National security—that paradoxical enterprise by which we take away freedoms so as to protect freedoms—doesn’t line up very nicely, either. On that front, the politicians in power almost always favor the collective definition of freedom, despite complaints from both ends of the spectrum. Still, I think this is the exception that proves the rule: collective action only seem to advance when the populace feels sufficiently threatened by some outside force, and enthusiasm for more rigid national security has faded away now that Islamic terrorism is not perceived to be the existential threat it was decade ago. Clearly, there are times when public opinion rallies against the steady march of individualism, and slows the tide for a spell. But the fact remains that the side that can best monopolize arguments for individual freedom just about always wins.

Appeals to individual rights resound with voters on a level that vague appeals to the greater good cannot, just as photos of a single starving child tend to move more people to action than a ream of statistics on child poverty. Self-interest tends to take priority, and in a society where the majority of people are relatively secure from outside threats, collective action often seems needless. On an individual level, this makes an awful lot of sense; the problems arise when we dare to ask what might be lost by such a narrow focus.

It’s important to note that this does not necessarily mean the advancement of individual liberties at the expense of state power. In some cases, government policy is seen as the best means to drive individual liberation, and the state sure hasn’t gotten any smaller over the past few decades, even with “conservatives” in control in Washington. Some even argue that individualism and growing state power feed off of one another in a vicious cycle. What have suffered, on the other hand, are voluntary associations that make up civil society—groups that citizens join to affect the communal good. In my opinion, the greatest threat this country faces is not its debt load, nor some external foe, nor an immediate lack of social justice. It is its failing social fabric, and without it, none of the other issues really matter.

My point here certainly isn’t to say that the government needs to control more things, or that we need to subsume all our individual desires to the collective. If I lived in a different country and in a different era, I might have lamented the opposite trend. My point is that our basic ways of thinking about politics—as a battle between the individual and the state—is fundamentally flawed.

Instead, we ought to recognize that humans, for all the unique traits of each one of us, are forever doomed to live within communities, and have to find some way to make them work as a collective. Certain problems can only be solved via collective action, and we also tend to be happier when we have our most fundamental beliefs validated by groups of people with similar interests or concerns. Conceiving of the human being as an autonomous individual who is forced into living with others is an impoverished view of human nature, to the extent that we can define such a thing. We have our moments when we operate alone, yes, but we also have moments where we must operate in concert, and we can’t ignore either one and expect to come out with a sensible philosophy about life.

At this moment in history, individualism has the upper hand, and while individual liberation has brought us many very good things, it isn’t without its dark side, and we must acknowledge it. This, of course, leads to the question of what can be done to counteract these trends; unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot of great answers on this front yet, beyond the basic suggestion that we should all get out a little bit more. It may, in fact, be hard to do much of anything until a lot more people become aware of the trends driving modern American life.

To that end, I suppose, this blog post is a start. We’ll see where we go next.


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