Individualism Versus the Common Good

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

America has always celebrated the “rugged individualist.” But, at the same time, Americans often come together in pursuit of what a majority defines as the common good. It was not rugged individualists who won American independence, defeated the slave power in the Civil War, led the nation through the Great Depression, and triumphed over fascism in World War II. These victories required collective action, and they often involved sacrifices by people far from the front lines. During World War II, most Americans accepted rationing with a stoicism rooted in patriotism, and many voluntarily planted “Victory Gardens.”Americans living in cities on both coasts observed blackout regulations, staying off roads, turning off lights, and covering windows. In addition to these historic public actions, Americans are known for coming to the aid of neighbors suffering through natural disasters or merely a period of bad luck. 

No more, it seems, judging by the reaction of a large and vocal minority to COVID-19 restrictions and mandates. Millions of Americans simply refuse to get the coronavirus vaccine, despite its demonstrable success in preventing infection or insuring that those who do get infected do not wind up in the hospital or dead. Then, there are those, often the same people, who refuse to wear masks, potentially exposing themselves and others to transmissible germs. “Freedom,” shout these Americans, claiming the right to personal autonomy summed up in the phrase, “My body, my choice.” I have pointed out, in an earlier post, the hypocrisy of their using this term as well as listing the many ways in which their supposed personal choices endanger the health and safety of their neighbors.

Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth may be uncomfortable, but it hardly seems an unreasonable request given its proven efficacy in preventing a disease that has killed over 600,000 Americans. It is no longer a simple question of some refusing to don a mask. Now, “mask wars” are breaking out, most notably in schools. In one school, an angry parent ripped a mask off a teacher’s face. In northern California, a parent punched an elementary school teacher in the face over mask rules. And, in a case of turn about is fair play, the vaccinated and the masked are now growing exasperated with their unvaccinated and unmasked fellow citizens, with some health care professionals even refusing to treat the unvaccinated.

How did we get here? This is a complex socio-political question, but part of the explanation resides in the long battle in the collective American psyche between individualism and collectivism. We Americans celebrate our origins, arguing that the first Europeans came here in search of personal freedom while attempting to avoid the heavy hand of the state, which tried to dictate religious and political conformity. (For the purposes of this line of inquiry, I exclude the millions of enslaved Africans who did not come to America of their own free will as well as the millions of indigenous people already present and whose own individual liberty fell victim to European settlers.)

The enormous size of the continental United States — a huge landmass stretching from sea to sea — lends itself to the idealizing of individualism. For the first century of its independence, the United States was a mostly empty land (it still is, though much of that emptiness is not hospitable to modern life) into which the discontented could flee. We celebrate Daniel Boone, who supposedly moved to a further frontier when he could see the smoke from the chimney of his nearest neighbor. More crowded lands, such as in Europe, came to stress collective action, since citizens living near one another became more dependent on one another. This dichotomy between an empty land giving rise to the celebration of individualism versus more populous nations requiring collectivization to enforce social harmony may explain why the United States remains the one industrialized democratic nation that still does not have a vibrant social safety net while European countries have adopted many of the tenets of democratic socialism.

Still, even on the frontier, no man or woman is an entirely autonomous entity. “Barn raisings” were one instance of collective action even in areas where farmers and ranchers could not see their neighbors. The need for safety often also demanded group cooperation. In myriad ways, the cult of individualism often gave way to collective action to ensure the common good, a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the philosophical writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. 

But, as the philosophers noted, the common good does not just happen without community effort. Keeping parks free of litter depends on each visitor picking up after himself or herself or after others who do not contribute to the common good. We pick up after ourselves because we want the park to be clean when we return and to ensure that those following have a litter-free park. The common good is a something to which all have access — clean air or clean water, for example — and from which no one is excluded. 

The common good, however, often clashes with the notion Americans have of a pluralistic society. We are a diverse nation of 330 million individuals who agree on little. Who defines what is the common good? More importantly, who draws the roadmap of how we reach the common good? It is precisely in arguments over these questions that the emphasis on individualism can have destructive results. This possibility was recognized almost two centuries ago by that most trenchant European observer of the new America, Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville described the confident individualism of Americans, which he thought was conducive to freeing great energy and creativity. But, to the extent that individualism undermined social responsibility, he noted, it left the individual too autonomous and devoid of the protections available in a more collectivized society.

Tocqueville’s description of the dichotomy between individual action and social responsibility describes much of the American experience. Americans have always zig-zagged between those two principles, but in the decades since 1980 the pendulum has swung, at least in some quarters, to a radical interpretation of an individualism devoid of any sense of community action, embracing instead a cult of selfishness. Part of the explanation for this development stems from the revolt of Reagan Republicans against the social safety net established during the New Deal, which led many Americans to believe that what’s theirs is theirs and to ignore the plight of their fellow citizens.

Whatever its origins, the cult of the rugged individualist is playing out today in the refusal of millions of Americans — a minority of us to be sure, but a loud and vocal minority — to act in the public good by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.

Posted August 24, 2021

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