Tag Archives: individualism

The Maldistribution of Security: the (In)vulnerability Paradox

This post is inspired by a short conversation I had months ago about climate change. It went something like this:

  • Hello passerby, do you want to learn more about sustainability?
  • Passerby: why yes, I am very interested in that topic. I always keep a clean house, I compost so I don’t waste food, I ride my bike as much as possible, and I use organic products, so I am definitely living sustainably.
  • Me: that’s interesting and very commendable! Have you thought about how you can contribute to the cause?
  • Passerby: well, I feel like I’m doing everything I should, and if everybody lived the way I do, we’d all be better off, but I can’t tell other people how to live. Besides, all that stuff about climate change just doesn’t seem to be based on fact.

Since ‘the great hunkerdown’ began, I’ve been thinking about this point of view alot. I see similar, if more extreme, ideas being circulated in the media. There’s an invisible line drawn between ‘my world’ and ‘what I’m responsible for’ and ‘the world of others’ and ‘what they are responsible for’. An individualistic approach to problems is our reflexive reaction in the Anglo settler countries of the developed industrialized world. Individualistic liberalism dictates that the line of ethical responsibility for others is determined by each person, as they make free decisions based on their own values and interests.

There’s something to be said for the power of this idea and its influence on liberal culture. After all, it is liberalism which first originated the modern language of rights and constructed a political space for imagining an ethic of agency which has been highly effective, at least within its own parameters.

It is appropriate to imagine that collective problems can be solved by individual action, indeed it is difficult to imagine how any progress can be made absent people ‘buying in’ to it, for example by changing their own consumption patterns.

Those countries around the world that ignored individual freedoms in favour of panicked enforced lockdowns in response to the pandemic will likely pay a high price in legitimacy, which will be costly in the end. Those countries that have enjoined their populations to ‘do the right thing’ have implicitly drawn on people’s genuine fears of their own contagion rather than a commitment to civic duty.

In the developed world, we should all pay deep respect and homage to the Italians for their sacrifice in helping us to learn that we were vulnerable. However, those countries that have relied almost exclusively on fears, without any reference to civic duty, have fared even worse than Italy, because in a liberal culture the absence of a sense of civic duty means that individual freedoms end up trumping everything else. Now more than ever, the paradoxical nature of individual freedom, based on a confident sense of security and separateness, is being laid bare.

It is liberalism which first originated the modern language of rights and constructed a political space for imagining an ethic of agency which has been highly effective, at least within its own parameters.

The gaps and limits of liberalism are being made visible, even obvious, as the logic becomes extended to its absurdities and extremes. Why not me first? Why care about others, isn’t that their job? My house is in order, I am healthy, I am reducing my footprint, I’m doing the right thing, I’m not the threat, why do I have to pay a price?

A really clear gap of liberal culture as it lives today, is its lack of any distributional ethics. Liberal thinking is essentially blind to the question of how security, or any other value, should be distributed. Since the only value worth distributing is individual freedom, and the only way to measure it is by each persons’ values and preferences, there is little to no room for considering exactly how equitable social distribution might actually work to enhance individual freedoms. The idea that each person’s freedom will be enhanced when decisions are made equitably, with the collective interest in mind, is alien and foreign.

The passerby who cares deeply about the cleanliness of her own household, and believes she alone deserves the benefit of her efforts, is blind to the myriad ways in which her choices are supported by the collective decisions of the past (and the present) that have made those choices possible. Indeed, the entire institutional structure of individual choices enjoyed today by those who most strongly defend their ‘freedoms’ has been made possible by the collective decisions of societies in the past (not by individuals). Ultimately, in history, it is only collective action that lasts, since the length of individual lifetimes is too short for leaders to see their ideas become permanently embedded. Thatcher had it exactly wrong: it’s not that there is no such thing as society, in the end there is only society.

Ultimately, in history, it is only collective action that lasts, since the length of individual lifetimes is too short for leaders to see their ideas become permanently embedded. Thatcher had it exactly wrong: it’s not that there is no such thing as society, in the end there is only society.

The cracks in this edifice are showing. The maldistribution of security, including the inequitable distribution of (in)vulnerability, is becoming glaringly obvious. The invisible line between ‘immunity’ and ‘vulnerability’ is being revealed for what it is: a collective construction. Immunity/vulnerability is a paradox. Immunity is always dependent, derivative of the vulnerability of and to others. The confidence in individual choice that liberalism empowers is at its core a function of the maldistribution of social vulnerability. Immunity can never be ‘just for me’ if it is to be a real thing and not an illusion or myth.

My protest to be mask-free is predicated on the existence of modern medical knowledge, nurses, doctors, and ventilators which can catch me if I fall. My resolve to open my business profitably is predicated on the willingness of customers to take risks AMA (against medical advice). All of this means that I have to be very strident to convince enough of the community to my side if I’m going to make a go of it.

My sense of safety in my own home, my ‘home immunity’ is predicated on the risks and vulnerability of service workers, first responders, grocery clerks, truck drivers, payroll clerks, meat plant workers, sewage workers, and an army of government employees. My insistence that I am only responsible for my own house is predicated on the edifice of social protections that society has established collectively. This edifice includes the effort and sacrifice of climate activists who may eventually contribute to finding a collective solution to the threat of climate change without my help.

If and when solutions are found, as a liberal focused on the ethics of individualism, I would have no qualms in making a claim for the immunity created by the vaccine for myself and my household. Similarly, I would have no qualms about defending my right to enjoy the benefits of a livable planet, including my freedom, as long as someone else pays the price. The question is, would anybody care enough about me to listen?

How Individualism Fails Young People

In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights.  Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.

Monuments in North Korea
Political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle.

It’s hard to imagine such a movement today.  The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.

In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.

The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order.  Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.

Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.

The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals.  Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.

Young woman sleeping on bed in student dorm, head resting on books
Group advocates have sounded like your Auntie’s voice chiding you to grow up and act responsibly.

Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob).  People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?

Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself.  Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.

But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises.  By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone.   Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.

Chairs and people seated
Individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty.

Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty.  It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state.  The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.

The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good.  To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised.  Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.