Individual Myth

For decades now we as a society have been following the social preferences of what Lynn Parramore, in an October 26, 2019 episode of Evonomics, called homo economicus, the supposedly rational human for whom the highest and best path for a human economy is determined by financial considerations. That means, for example, an emphasis on individual utility maximization and cost-benefit analysis. The alternative to this is homo communis, the compassionate and multifaceted human for whom the most important factors cannot always be reduced to monetary measures. Communis favors what is sometimes referred to as “the greater good.” In the corporate world, economicus has brought us to the extreme of shareholder primacy, in which the business of business is solely to maximize profits, stock market gains, and dividends. The communis alternative, which actually was much more common in the middle of the twentieth century, is to factor in the interests of all corporate stakeholders, including the workers, their families, the neighborhoods and cities surrounding the corporate facilities, and even the customers. In politics, economicus focuses on policies that are intended to stimulate economic growth, or even more narrowly to follow the short-term dictates of the leaders of private industries and to rationalize that tendency by invoking the ethos of growth. Monetary analysis tend to minimize such difficult-to-quantify externalities as the welfare of workers or communities, the effects of the pollutants created and released in business operations, and the subtleties of product quality and lifespan.

The communis alternative is to act in ways that improve the living conditions and welfare of all citizens by operating businesses in ways that account for the effects of all such unquantifiable externalities, methods that minimize the negative impacts and recognize the value of continuity and long-term sustainability. In the public sphere it means policies such as redistributing wealth, creating and enforcing an equitable legal system, providing a social safety net, and maintaining a broadly useful common infrastructure. Those efforts would be a recognition of the importance of community, and the greater good, as a contributor to the economic health of the country.

But just as we have elevated homo economicus over homo communis, there is another related dichotomy that has become unbalanced by an unfortunate preference for one of the alternatives. This is the choice between individualism and communitarianism. Individualism is, in the extreme, the myth that each of us solely determines our own fate. In this model, every negative outcome in our life is our own responsibility. If someone is working in a job that pays minimum wage and living in substandard housing it is their fault. If they lose their job and are bankrupted because of an unexpected illness, it is their fault. If they go into debt to complete a training course to upgrade their skills and still can’t find a job, they invested in the wrong career path, so it is again their fault. If they’re laid off when their employer moves its operations to Mexico … well, you get the idea. Being born into deep poverty is also no excuse. There are a host of Horatio Alger anecdotes out there just waiting to quash that excuse, ignoring the fact that statistics show that the United States has one of the lowest (read: near impossible) rates of upward mobility in the world.

The meme of individual responsibility was institutionalized in the middle of the twentieth century using the sociological terminology of “the culture of poverty,” a self-referential collection of rationalizations that essentially said that multi-generational poverty was primarily the result of the attitudes and life choices of the families themselves rather than any characteristics in the surrounding society. That philosophy was rejected by academicians more than six decades ago, but the concepts live on in political doctrine and in the popular culture of individual blame, the concept that any people who are unable to pull themselves out of poverty do not deserve anything better. It has been used to justify repeated reductions in the welfare state, the near-destruction of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and repeated cuts in such support programs as food stamps and housing subsidies and Medicaid.

Conversely, if an individual experiences positive outcomes, it is considered to be not only their own personal accomplishment, but a sign of social and moral superiority. Chief officers of successful corporations are praised as if they were solely responsible for that prosperity and are often consulted as experts on a wide variety of topics unrelated to their business model. Executive salaries that are hundreds of times larger than average worker pay are justified as fair compensation for contributions that nobody else could have provided and for supposed personal qualities like a distinctive work ethic that nobody else exhibits. External inputs such as market or environmental or societal timing, random luck, personal network connections, or inherited wealth, are largely ignored. The circular logic of positive outcomes decrees that a successful individual must have earned their success because they’ve received it. The invisible hand that chooses winners and losers in the economic market is apparently also the arbiter of personal quality in the wider social world. Ameliorative policies such as progressive taxation are rejected as unfair punishment of exemplary individuals.

The uproar that greeted Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book “It Takes a Village” is also indicative of this meme. She was accused of undermining the primacy of the nuclear family as well as minimizing the standing of individual agency. Note that the “nuclear family” myth, succeeding on its own without extended family or societal supports, is just another fallacy of the individualist philosophy. Another similar outrage came after President Obama, in a 2012 speech, uttered the blasphemy, “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.” His point, of course, was similar to Clinton’s. They posited that we all live in a society, and our lives and our successes, the things we build, depend on a complex supportive system, the physical infrastructure and legal structure and traditional customs and interpersonal relationships, not to mention the individual efforts of all the people who support and believe in the many parts of that system. It is no surprise that virtually all of the outrage against the Clinton and Obama statements came from conservatives, those who subscribe to the individualist philosophy phrased by Margaret Thatcher when she said, “There’s no such thing as society.”

Many commentators have argued that Thatcher was not rejecting government action. However, later in the very same speech she went on to reject a concept that she characterized as “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” and to praise the idea that “the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.” Her statements are the essence of the conservative ethos of individualism, incorporating the idea that the problems of “unfortunates” should be solved not by society acting as a whole, but by individual contributions, through charity.

The conservative rejection of communitarian action has expanded since the days of Thatcher and Reagan. President Trump’s administration has done its best to dismantle the federal structure of social responsibility, rolling back environmental limits and public land protections and business regulations, and reducing enforcement efforts regarding whatever remains. His attitudes toward the Covid-19 pandemic have ineffectively dithered about any meaningful federal role in limiting the spread of the virus, and his fans, following his lead, have turned reasonable prophylactic actions into questions of individual choice dissociated from any obligations to the larger community. The simple act of wearing a mask to reduce the spread of the contagion has been turned into a political imposition, with the anti-mask groups refusing to give up their supposed individual rights to refuse any government mandate.

The anti-mask movement, often coupled with pressures to “open up the economy quickly,” is the ultimate expression of individualistic preference in opposition to the communitarian goal of protecting the general public. It is only one of the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the failure of this self-centered philosophy, a list which includes the obvious lack of interest in, and government funding of preparations for, a disaster that the nation should have anticipated. No, the primary goal prior to the pandemic was to reduce any government expenditures or efforts that would benefit the greater good. All of this is a logical extension of the conservative trends of elevating individualism and rejecting communitarian options, and of following the cult of homo ecomonicus, yet another example to add to the misguided overall goals of negligible regulation and minimal taxation.

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