Tuesday, March 27, 2012

American Individualism: That Dangerous Delusion

I begin this post with two discussions. First a discussion between a group of mothers who don't vaccinate their children and a Public Health official (watch it from 45 seconds to 3:56) :

The assumption that these mother's make is that whether or not they choose to vaccinate their children is their decision alone. The possible health risks to unvaccinated, at risk groups are irrelevant - in their minds - to that decision. They either refuse to believe that there are such risks, or refuse to believe that they have a responsibility to take these risks into account. Thinking in terms of the individual apart from the community, these mothers insist that their responsibility is to themselves and their children alone; others are, presumably, responsible solely for themselves in the same manner.

The Public health official protests that when we affect the community, we cannot help but affect ourselves. If we introduce illness into our society, our own risk of illness increases as well. If we don't help take care of each other, we cannot even take care of ourselves.

The second discussion I heard today on NPR. The Supreme court is currently discussing the Constitutionality of "Obamacare." Specifically, the court is hearing arguments to rule on whether the individual mandate - which requires Americans to buy insurance or pay a fee - is permissible according to the Constitution. Whatever the fate of that particular position, some of the arguments against it put forward by the conservative Justices have a particular flavor. Listen to the following:

NPR: Health Care Mandate before Supreme Court

And this:

NPR: For and Against the Health Care Mandate

Just as the mothers did in the first clip, the Justices appeal to the individual first and foremost. The claim is that we cannot require this or that individual to "bear the costs" of other individuals, and that to do so eliminates (or at least greatly diminishes) their freedom of choice.

The opposition to these Justices argues in much the same vein as the Public Health Official in the Vaccine discussion did. Health care decisions never affect me solely as an individual, what happens to me directly affects what happens to others. If I don't get health insurance, and I am rushed to the ER for a heart attack, the hospital must treat me. When I can't pay, they must raise prices, insurance responds by raising premiums, and State Governments by raising taxes. To think of health insurance as nothing but an individual choice without any communal impact is not only naive, but entirely fails to consider the facts.

Behind the reaction of both the Justices and the mothers is the myth of the self-made individual. The myth holds, in spite of common sense, that whatever happens to me in life is the result primarily (perhaps even solely) of my own effort and achievement. If I get sick, that's my fault. If I'm not rich, I did not work hard enough. If I lose my home, can't afford chemotherapy, or find myself buried in debt, then I have no one to blame but me. Even worse, this myth seems clearly to advocate the position that the responsibility I have to others is negative; that is, I must not steal from them, murder them, or physically assault them, but I owe them nothing more than that.

The myth of the self-made individual is sheer nonsense.

We all owe a great debt to others for who we are and what we have achieved. We were taught to walk, talk, and even use the toilet by parents (or some caretaker). We were taught to read, write, and do arithmetic by teachers. Our character, personality, loves, likes, hates, preferences, values, and even our talents, are shaped to large degree by coaches, employers, coworkers, teammates, friends, lovers, and even casual acquaintanceships.

We are who we are because we are related to and interconnected with other people, other members of our communities.

But it's more than that. We are not little islands roving about an vast expanse of sea. What we do affects our society, and that society affects us. If we support policies that cut funding to education, cut aid to those living in poverty, dump people into prison for non-violent crimes, and fail to acknowledge the divisions of race and class that rip our society asunder, then we will be hurt by living in a less content, more violent, and less cooperative society. What we do or fail to do for our society, we do or fail to do for ourselves.

In economics the myth of the self-made individual is all too well known. Many of the super rich and their supporters argue that they must not be taxed at higher rates than the rest of us. They claim that to do so is nothing short of stealing what they rightly own.

Behind this idea is the assumption that wealthy people are solely responsible for their wealth. The help and assistance that they have received from others is marginal and negligible. They see themselves as "self-made" heroes whose hard work and intelligence has earned them their success.

The fact that many of these so-called "self-made" individuals were born wealthy, received government loans, grants, and other funding, use public roads, rely on employees who are publicly educated, depend on consumer protection laws, police, fire fighters, and other public services is not taken into account.

Furthermore, that how much money one earns depends on arbitrary factors - like being born with certain natural talents rather than others, being born in a time period in which one's talents pay off, and having one's talents, somewhat randomly favored by society - is never recognized by these self-professed heroes and their allies.

That a professional athlete, or a hedge fund manager, is paid so much more than an elementary school teacher, or a nurse, is simply a matter of the way society structures its economy; not a result of how hard these individuals work, or the result of some moral worth or inherent greatness that they posses.

We have to start thinking of ourselves as related to others, not merely encountering them like passing ships in the night. We are a community, not a collection of atomistic egos. What we do or fail to do for the broader society, we do or fail to do for ourselves.

Bookmark and Share

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments from many different points of view are welcome. But I will not publish any comments that are hateful, insulting, or filled with profanity. I welcome and encourage dialogue and disagreement but will not publish any hate speech.