Deflating Conservative Arguments: The Myth of Individualism

My rabbi recently told a story about a bunch of people in a boat. One of them started drilling a hole in the boat under his seat and everyone screamed, “What are you doing?!?”. The man drilling the hole said, “What business is it of yours? I’m doing this under MY seat. It doesn’t effect you.” The commentary is, of course, that we’re all in this together even if we think our actions don’t effect others.

To me this is a perfect parable for the myth of individualism. Conservatives have seized upon the idea of individualism to further their argument toward a more corporatist state. Their argument goes that individuals, given access to all pertinent information, will make the best decisions for themselves, their communities, their states and their country. It further considers these all to be the same thing; the best decision for the individual is the best decision for everyone. This obviously ignores any conflicts that may exist among individuals and between individuals and society. It also ignores greed.

You may be asking yourself, “Why is ‘individualism’ a ‘myth’?” According to the New Oxford American Dictionary (subscription only), one definition of “myth” is:

Myth, n. A widely held, but false belief or idea.

According to The Free Dictionary, Individualism is defined as:

Individualism, n. Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.

Simply put, this is the theory that I described above. In order to believe in individualism, you must be willing to believe that what we do has no effect on the outside world, that there is no causal relationship between anything that we do and the things we see around us. It’s easy to put the lie to this by simply taking a look at any interaction between people with a material conflict such as the example provided by the boat parable, or perhaps this: the nuclear industry and those individuals working for it are making the best decisions for themselves, but it comes at a terrible cost to many others. The fact that we’re all in this together is why I call individualism a myth.

I would further argue that the myth of individualism causes self destructive behavior. There are plenty of stories of malfeasance to choose from, Enron, BP, fracking, Madoff, etc., etc., etc. All of these came about because someone thought it was the best thing for them to do. They didn’t consider the negative impacts on other people, the environment, health and safety, fairness, equality, justice or economic well being. The prime reason that the decisions leading to all of these crises are made is profit.

As Ambrose Bierce noted in his work the Devils Dictionary:

Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

It is beyond any doubt that individualism causes destructive behavior, but self destructive behavior? Well, consider that the individuals making the decisions on behalf of the corporations, or on behalf of themselves (as many of the top decision makers have incentives to make their corporations more profitable), just as the man drilling the hole in the boat, also must live with the consequences of their actions. In many cases, they might not feel those consequences immediately, but eventually, everyone is impacted.

But alas, this myth is a useful one when you’re trying to gain the support of the rural poor to advance the will of the super rich. Many of the people who make up the base of the Republican party are the same people who get beaten down by Republican policy. This is because, like most Americans, they don’t pay any attention to the policy after the election, so they believe the rhetoric. They believe in individualism because when you’re a farmer or rancher, you work the land and raise crops or cattle by the sweat of your own brow. This is the very appealing image of rugged individualism as portrayed by Reagan and before him Teddy Roosevelt. However, when you look at the results of policies of conservative governance, you see a widening of the income gap caused by upward redistribution of wealth.

Meanwhile, although the Republican party (and conservatives generally) espouse individualism as a core value, social conservatives don’t really want individuals to have any real choices that pertain to their personal lives. It really only takes one look at today’s war on women, or their fight against the rights of gay Americans, or their recent onslaught against labor. It’s clear that while they talk a lot about individualism, they really only like it when it means that corporations can do whatever the heck they please.

Many people have been taken in by the myth of individualism over the years. There are always those who are willing to believe that people can make it on their own, despite the fact that everyone needs the things society provides through our government in order to succeed. If it weren’t for our shared systems of education, transportation, sewage, water, (subsidized and regulated) power, public safety, dispute resolution (the courts), etc., it would be impossible for businesses and the individuals behind them to succeed.

The truth is that there really is no such thing as individualism. The whole concept is a falsehood, a myth. The reality is that we truly are all in this together, but in the minds of so many conservatives, you’re on your own.

Cross posted on Daily Kos.

Update: In the linked posting on Daily Kos, a few people have noted in the comments that there are positive aspects of individualism. This is not what the diarist meant to address. I was referring to individualism as a societal theory, not a personal trait. I’m specifically referring to people pursuing their individual self interest as is discussed in the free market ideological theories of Milton Friedman. Sorry if this was unclear.

In this vein, individualism causes destructive behavior because it presumes that what is right for the individual is right for all. This is a false presumption as what feels good to me might be to pillage the village, but clearly this would not be best for the village. People who see themselves as disconnected from the community (even if all they want is to be left alone), do harm to themselves and others whenever they act in a way that is harmful to society.

I’m not saying that we don’t have individual responsibilities or arguing that we should have some sort of big brother watching what we do, or that we shouldn’t be allowed to do things that we like. I am arguing however, that we have an effect on one another, whether we know it (or like it) or not.


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