Individualism is Not the Problem

Elizabeth Bruenig’s article on “the antisocial politics of Trump” has received some attention. 

Here’s her main point:

If only that world were really so far away. In reality, it is already here. What unites workfare, the annihilation of DACA and the war on unions is a totalizing individualism — the belief that people are essentially isolated individuals. That we are alone before we are together. That we are more and not less ourselves in total isolation. From that view flow policies that disregard or deny that people are, in fact, embedded in families, communities and industries, and that their bonds and obligations are powerful and ought to be respected and protected by the state. No politics issuing from that view can ever cultivate unity.

Individualism is (according to the Oxford English Dictionary):

(1) The habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant.

(1.1) Self-centered feeling or conduct; egoism.

(2) A social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.

Individualism is often used to describe qualities of being an individual or a unit that cannot be divided (i.e., a person).  

There’s a significant difference between (1) and (2) found in the OED definition. Being completely self-reliant is not the same thing as favoring freedom of action. How many libertarians would live on their own islands or in a bunker in the woods without any interactions with the outside world? Any more than those favoring similarly closed Marxist communities?  

Likewise, there is a significant difference between the individualism used to define the qualities of a person (whether indivisible or unique) and self-reliance. Many of those who buy and sell at local farmers markets across the country exemplify the qualities of individualism but are far from self-reliant.

We are inherently social beings and (at the same time) we are individuals. And in both respects, we are more similar than we are different. That is not to say that we think in the same ways or have the same strengths and weaknesses. But we have the same basic desires and challenges. We travel on the same paths even though our journeys may not be the same.

By focusing on our differences (rather than our similarities) we tend to overemphasize our individualism (e.g., “no one understands my situation because I am different”) rather than embracing its beauty and subtleties (e.g., “although my journey might be unique others have traveled on this same path before and I can learn from them”).

This can drive us from benefiting from the unique qualities of the individual to feeling like we must be self-reliant. And this is destructive. Adam Smith lectured his students in the 1760s that “in a savage nation everyone enjoys the fruit of his own labor, yet their Indigence is greater than anywhere.” Self-reliance yields poverty. But individualism doesn’t necessary yield self-reliance.

At the same time, it is our individual contributions that make this world beautiful. It’s the division of labor that allows us to benefit from the many unique contributions of our brothers and sisters. Individualism can, therefore, yield abundance and remove misery.

How do we appreciate the individual while staying engaged? Adam Smith suggested that we might use sympathy to understand the people that we interact with every day through exchange. You have to know what your trading partners want to engage in reciprocal trade. And it helps to know their motivation in order to understand what they want. 

There are several Trump doctrines. But radical individualism through self-reliance is not one. The form of nationalism that is present today, and to which Trump seems to subscribe, is a reaction to something that has been going within our communities.

Karl Polanyi suggested that “nationalism is a protective reaction to the dangers inherent in an interdependent world.” And by an interdependent world he meant an economy with a semi-liberal market where rigidities result in lost income or unemployment. These rigidities are less prevalent in a totally free market which itself may be a form of utopia.

When people lose their jobs and their identity because a company moves to China, they might respond with nationalism because it’s something that they can reach out and hold onto. They can draw a border or define people by race in an attempt to protect “our people versus their people.” Boundaries are, to Polanyi, “shock absorbers” to the market. And when democracy cannot deliver, they push authoritarianism. For Polanyi’s nationalists, the type of government is a means to an end.

One of the ways in which we are similar is that we come programmed with concerns over our own safety. In a battle between identity preservation and the benefits of a liberal market, preservation tends to win. This is especially true when the market forces seem to threaten the identity of contained groups of people (e.g., when everyone in a town works for one company and the company goes out of business).  

I think this model is fairly constructive. If you think about where nationalism has taken hold in America it seems to be in more rural communities that have, in fact, been damaged by our semi-liberal (or semi-illiberal) market economy. Today’s form of nationalism hasn’t taken hold in areas that have benefited from vibrant interactions through trade or where there is a perception that jobs are just as easily gained as lost.

But how do you enter into a conversation with these communities in a way in which we are listening to them and they are listening to us? How do you persuade these folks that our neighbors in far-off places have lots of good things to offer? How do you persuade folks that more liberal immigration policies would benefit all those involved?

Lecturing people about how their responses are driven by immoral actions (racism, for instance) or providing detailed instructions on how they should live their lives (yes, the welfare state does this) is usually not a good persuasion technique. Rather, we must transcend our usual interactions through openness and vulnerability in the idea that we have something to learn from other people.   

At the same time, both sides must stop demonizing policies that don’t necessarily fit their worldviews. The expansion of workfare brought on by the 1996 welfare reform law lifted incomes, reduced childhood poverty, and improved behavior associated with good health despite research suggesting that the opposite might happen. At the same time, public programs have been fairly effective at reducing poverty since the Great Society.

I believe that we would be better off by seeking to understand why people are hurt by looking towards our similarities. The important question is how can we work together to improve each other’s lives through service, sympathy, and reciprocal trade? How can we increase the diffusion of our good and unique gifts? And when there’s something getting in the way of any of these paths, how can we remove it?