The Modern Survival Guide #30
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone… all alone. Oh, and in this article I’ll be talking about individualism and why too much of it can be a very bad thing indeed.
America operates on the mythology of the super-empowered individual: the action hero, the corporate magnate, the cowboy, the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps self-made-man archetype. It’s in our entertainment, our historical narrative, our political philosophies, and our culture. We are accordingly raised to value the individual above all else, to recognize individual achievements as more important than group achievements, and to think of our own needs first and foremost.
It’s important to recognize that this can be a trap if you take it too far — extreme emphasis on individualism can leave you isolated and vulnerable in your personal life, while too much emphasis on individualism in politics can and will destabilize the foundations of our society.
I call this the Individualism Trap, and I think it is useful to modern survival to understand it and escape it. I’ll cover the personal trap and the political trap separately, but to my mind they’re equally important.
Trapping You Alone
The trouble with a cultural bias that massively favors individual action is that it makes it much, much harder for us to actually exist in a society. To put that another way, if my first priority is always my own well-being, any cooperative enterprise that does not involve immediate personal gain must necessarily take second place. When we conduct our lives in this way it pushes us apart, even in situations where community actions would make things easier.
For example, Americans value privacy and personal space probably a lot more than we should. This is a result of our emphasis on the individual — I need space to pursue my desires. I need space away from the annoyance of others. I need my own property in order to feel financially and socially secure.
The result of this kind of philosophy is to drive wealthy people away from the broader community — as your wealth increases, there’s a tendency to put more and more space between you and everyone else, until eventually you don’t even see poor people at all. As noted in #29, this can have the effect of decreasing the empathy of rich people by isolating them from less fortunate neighbors. And that, it turn, has major implications for how a society treats the less fortunate.
Meanwhile, Americans spend more than $200 billion annually on long-term care for family members. And granted, a lot of that money represents professional medical care for severely ill people. But a lot of it represents elderly relatives who have been stuck in nursing homes because families can’t or won’t take them in. This is a social and economic cost for keeping old people out of your space.
It’s important to realize two things here: One, no one wants to be in a nursing home. And two, this could be you. Your children or relatives might very well decide that they don’t want you in their space when you get too old to maintain your own space. So slow your roll, Mr. “Grandpa is Holding Up My Dating Life.” Someday you’ll be Grandpa; you’d better hope your family is used to taking care of elderly people.
In general, and building on this theme, American families are massively less connected compared to many other cultures. In most places in the world, it is unusual for family members to live so far away that they can’t easily visit one another. In the US, this is increasingly the norm. In many cases, it is becoming expected that new adults will move sufficiently far away from their families that significant contact is minimal (usually for economic reasons, but still).
While one might raise the argument that more people around the world would move away from their families if they could, that ignores the very real problems associated with distant family, particularly in the arena of childcare — there’s a reason why the daycare industry in the US is booming. Child rearing gets harder when grandparents don’t live next door. And that’s not even touching all the other kinds of support families offer each other emotionally and materially, that individualistic cultures like ours often lose.
The individualism trap also touches economics, particularly access to money. It is extremely uncommon in the US to have anything like a family- or community-accessible rainy-day fund. Most of the time, once children reach adulthood, they are effectively cut off. They might receive the occasional bailout or gift from their parents, but they are expected to maintain separate financing, to the point that it is often considered unusual to maintain joint finances with your parents or family.
This is not at all the way everyone does things. Other countries and cultures have all manner of community financing schemes, family savings setups, and cost-sharing arrangements. And, of course, any one of these could be adopted in the US, if we could get around the cultural bias. But for the most part, if you go broke in the US, that’s between you, your creditors, and the IRS.
And finally, being an empowered, self-reliant individual sounds great on paper, but it’s pretty obvious at this point that it has major impacts on our mental health. We are social animals; the more disconnected you get from the herd, the more your brain starts acting up.
These are just examples, but these points raise a key aspect of the trap: individualism is a sport for the young, healthy, and wealthy. Everyone else is stuck in the culture, but does not benefit from it. And it is a contest; we engage in competitions to be seen as more unique than our peers, more self-sufficient than our peers, more self-reliant then our peers — for no real perceptible tangible gain.
Meanwhile, if people lose the individualism game, they tend to get stuck in the teeth of the welfare system — which has, not coincidentally, been set up to punish failure. We actively, aggressively punish people for not being self-reliant enough to survive in the modern economy. Why? Because if they can’t hack it as individuals, we assume they are bad people.
If you take anything away from this section, I want you to consider the primary impact of extreme individualism — you are always, always vulnerable and you are always, always dependent on money. You lose the backup options that a strong social group imparts, trading this for self-reliance, i.e., spending your way out of problems that other cultures would rely on family or social connections to solve.
This has real and major implications for your survival, because it means that a major injury or similar personal disaster can immediately and severely tax your personal resources, and you probably lack other support options aside from going into debt. In these cases, falling into the individualism trap leaves you alone, vulnerable, and too proud to ask for help.
Trapping You with Freedom
The big political trap of a culture that prizes individualism above all else is that it seems to result in a system where only individual freedoms are patriotic and cooperation is undervalued (or even decried as, gasp, socialist). This has major implications in terms of taxation and government action.¹
See, the whole point of most conservative or libertarian political philosophies is to reduce the scope of government, which is a noble goal and one that we should always keep in mind. Too much government is not necessarily a good thing for a freedom-oriented people or a functional democracy (although one could make the argument that the form the government takes is more important than its size, but at a certain point that’s splitting hairs).
But that goal sometimes falls prey to the individualism trap, because it is much easier to be a selfish individual under individualist conservative philosophies, and it is much easier to espouse selfish ideologies in a society focused on individualism. An attitude of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours in negotiable” is much easier to maintain if we all believe that we each individually deserve to make as much money as possible and have as much stuff as possible.
And since the most consistent way most people feel the presence of government in their lives is through taxation, it’s easy to see how the “Get government out of my wallet!” rallying cry gets started — if you believe in the primacy of individual freedoms, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that any form of taxation is an unbearable intrusion on your individual circumstances.
At the same time, a too-strong focus on individualism promotes the concept of individual action as the cure for everything. Need more money for research? Hold a fundraiser and rely on each person to make the right choice and give money. Need better employment? Give more money to super-empowered rich people, who will hire more workers. Government going bad? Install a Great Leader to sort it out. And never mind the bureaucracy, it just gets in the way.
This is the Ayn Rand Übermensch view of the world, and it has problems. The core problem is that its adherents forget that single points of failure are rarely good things; putting all the weight on individuals allows all the weight to drop if they fail.² Add to this the problem that individualist governing philosophies favor low taxes at the expense of state functionality. And tack on a major tertiary issue, which is that these viewpoints tend to over-simplify the world; if all government was bad, we’d already be in a dystopia.
This all has major implications for how we’re able to respond to collective-action problems (problems that require many people to cooperate in order to find a resolution), because the largest of these problems (like raising an army) are government issues, and governments run on taxes and bureaucracies. Both of which are considered evil under extreme individualist philosophies.
This is the political trap of individualism: it’s very easy to get yourself into a situation where you have citizens who feel patriotic because they believe in individual freedoms, but undercut the stability of the country by pushing for lower and lower taxes and smaller and smaller government in support of individual freedoms.
This results in a situation where the country cannot take any significant action because it is, metaphorically, standing on its own foot. The historical follow-up to this situation is traditionally either revolution, the establishment of an oligarchy, or conquest by outside powers (because states that can’t act are failed states, and failed states are unstable). Decide for yourself if this is a desirable situation.
Escaping the Trap
As with most things, individualism is a fine philosophy in moderation. It is good for a modern democratic state to have at least some emphasis on individual freedoms, goals, and accomplishments. If nothing else, this at least helps to ensure that people are educated, motivated, and powerful enough to have fulfilling, interesting lives.
But moderation is the key, closely followed by the necessity to recognize moderate individualism vs. extreme individualism. Here’s a quick test for that:
Are the actions/laws/philosophies under discussion proposing an increase in individual freedoms or responsibilities while relying on malicious optimism?³
If the answer is yes, this is probably a case of extreme individualism, and therefore a trap. This is an excellent metric for political issues, in particular.
Escaping the rest of the trap, i.e. the social conditioning that we all go through in American society, is mostly about recognizing that it is conditioning, and not just the way the world works. There are many, many lifestyle options that do not hew to extreme individualism. And the nice part about living in a free country is that, for the most part, we can just choose another one.
And let me be clear: I am not saying that other systems are necessarily better. There’s almost always a balance to be found, and I think that some amount of individualism is important. But I do think it is imperative for long-term survival in America to recognize our society’s biases, recognize the problems that come with those biases, and escape them where possible… and the Individualism Trap definitely makes that list.
¹And don’t come at me with that “taxation is theft” crap. You have more say in your taxes than you do with the price of your electricity, to take a random example, and in both cases your choice is the same: pay the fee or do without the service. It’s just that in the case of taxes, the service is the nation. You cannot be a patriot and avoid paying taxes. Without taxes, there is no nation to be patriotic about.
²The trouble with noble philosopher kings is that they eventually die, and then you have to hope like hell that the heir to the throne is also a noble philosopher king and not, as is likely, a spoiled brat of a prince.
³Malicious Optimism: Making a proposal that may have a good outcome, but also might fail horribly, potentially resulting in harm to yourself and/or others, and lacking any kind of plan to mitigate that potential failure.