Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Individualism and American Life

This is Rod Dreher, reviewing a new book by Yuval Levin about America's contemporary malaise and the partisan gridlock it spawns:
What neither side can see is that they expect the impossible. Generally speaking, liberals want maximal individual liberty in personal life, especially on matters related to sexual expression, but demand more state involvement in the economy for the sake of equality. Conservatives desire maximal economic freedom but lament the social chaos and dysfunction—in particular, the collapse of the family among the poor and working classes—that afflict American society. The uncomfortable truth is that what each side loathes is the shadow side of what it loves.

As Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out in The Lost City, his 1995 book about Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, contemporary people lie to themselves about what things were like in the Golden Age. The thick social bonds and sense of community Americans enjoyed back then came at a significant cost—including cultural conformity and a lack of personal and consumer choice—that few of us today would tolerate. Ehrenhalt wrote that beginning in the 1960s, however, Americans embraced “the belief in individual choice and suspicion of any authority that might interfere with it.”
I consider this a fair description of what has happened since 1960: increasing personal and economic freedom, increasing inequality, weakened communities, rising alienation. But did it have to happen? And it is really true that we can't have a more equal economic system without recreating some form of tighter social control? That the loosening of repressive communities and the decline of patriarchal families has to lead to loneliness, anger, and the decline of the middle class?

I don't see why it has to. Levin and Dreher share a belief that America is on the whole worse off than it was in 1960, but I don't agree. If the decline of New Deal economics was the inevitable result of ending segregation, empowering women and protecting the environment, it was a price worth paying. It is certainly true that one side effect of increasing freedom has been the rise of libertarianism, but that doesn't mean we have to surrender to the libertarians on everything.

Most of the time I think it should be possible to create a new Democratic coalition built around fairness, using high taxes on the rich and major spending on infrastructure to mitigate the economic impact of globalization while still preserving personal liberty. And if not I still think it is worth trying.


G. Verloren said...

It's quite clear that you can have a society full of individual freedoms which also has a strong economy and low inequality. Just look at places like Switzerland, The Netherlands, et cetera - multicultural nations with strong economies and great degrees of personal freedom.

One major issue in play, though, is that Americans have different notions of which freedoms should be protected. We lock people away for taking recreational drugs, but we let people walk into grocery stores with their own private assault rifles slung over their backs. We view taxes as almost tantamount to theft, but we don't mind at all that our prison, education, and healthcare systems are for-profit monstrosities that routinely exploit the poor and vulnerable. What other nations see as reasonable limits on personal freedoms for the sake of society as a whole, we see as insufferable and arbitrary thefts or infringements of sacred, immutable rights.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

When individual freedom is obtained at the expense of a proper sense of community responsibility, things go bad.

Did it have to happen? Maybe, "Only In America." We have in our national mythology the notion of the rugged individual, the person who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps. Well, grab the sides of your shoes and pull hard and see how far you go.

The phenomenon was described in "Habits of the Heart - Individualism and Commitment in American Life" by Robert Bellah et al back in 1985. Bellah has written a follow-up, "The Good Society," which "examines how many of our institutions- from the family to the government itself- fell from grace, and offers concrete proposals for revitalizing them."