Sunday, August 12, 2012

Radical Individualism -- America's Dominant Narrative

Once upon a time Americans believed in the myth of the "self-made man" and then the Stock Market Crash hit and people turned to each other and to the government for help.  During the Great Depression it became clear that people couldn't survive on their own.  At that time the New Deal was enacted to provide a safety net that hadn't been there before.  One of the pieces of that safety net is Social Security.  Then in the 1960s the programs of the Great Society were enacted, including Medicare.  None of these programs are perfect but they are a response to the realities that none of us can survive on our own.

I think that many people have forgotten that lesson.  The myth of the "self-made man or woman" has returned with a vengeance.  The safety net, which has admittedly grown ever-larger, is under attack.  I would be the first to say that reform is needed, but that's not the point.  The point is one of ideology.  

The narrative of Radical Individualism strikes at the very fabric of American life.  It undermines such important institutions as public education, which was designed to make sure that every American had access to quality schools.  

One of the ideological cornerstones of radical individualism is a rejection of the idea that I have a responsibility to my neighbor, especially if my neighbor looks different or believes differently.  One of the central figures in this new era of radical individualism is a long deceased writer named Ayn Rand.  Rand espoused an "objectivist ethic" that taught the "virtue of selfishness."  She believed that altruism -- doing good to the other without expectation of something in return was evil.  The self is the center.  This philosophy stands at the heart of a number of political movements, and has been, at least until recently, embraced by the GOP Vice Presidential Candidate -- Paul Ryan.  Rand had little use for government except -- as she lays out in an essay these three areas:

The proper functions of a government fall into three broad categories, all of them involving the issues of physical force and the protection of men’s rights: the police, to protect men from criminals—the armed services, to protect men from foreign invaders—the law courts, to settle disputes among men according to objective laws.
You will see nothing here regarding a safety net, nothing having to do with education or infrastructure.  Think about it for a moment when you go for a drive in that care -- who built the roads?  Well we did as a society, paying takes and users fees.  That's a government role that Ayn Rand rejects. 

My question is -- what does the future hold for a nation that embraces "radical individualism"?   What happens to a society when the poor, the weak, the infirm can no longer take care of themselves -- to whom shall they turn?  You say -- to the churches.  Well, if only the churches had the numbers and the wealth to deal with such issues.  You say that asking you to pay taxes to care for such people is an infringement on your rights?  Well, I didn't agree with the war in Iraq -- am I not paying for it?  Is that not an infringement on my rights?  After all, Iraq didn't attack us so even on Rand's premises that war mad no logical sense.  

More to my point -- if we continue on a course guided by these values, where we see greater inequality in our country -- where does that lead us?  Is that a good thing for us as a country?  


John said...

The radically selfish say rely on the churches? In essence then they are saying that the old, the poor, the infirm, the sick, and needful ought to be able to rely on those who are willing to donate the time and money they need. That of course would exclude the selfish from responsibility.

Instead, the selfish get the all the benefits of a welfare system and none of the costs. In this way they too exploit the generosity and compassion of the few.

Well, let's call them on it. Let the numbers of homeless grow, let seniors start dying by the tens of thousands, force the needy to steal. Let's see how we do when we rely exclusively on the pocketbooks of the generous few to provide a private safety net as their free-will offering to the selfish and wealthy job creators among us.

(I still don't know how sheltering one's assets and income in foreign banks creates jobs in the United States.)

Any Rand was formed in the midst of the failures of Russion Bolshevism, and her philosophy of radical selfishness was a radically defensive response against the authoritarian collectivism of her youth. This is the mindset of Paul Ryan - who is recorded as requiring all of his staffers to read Ayn Rand's books as a condition of employment.

David said...

How do churches actually compare in effective giving vs. secular organizations? Don't forget to include what is lost in tax revenue.

60% of religious charitable donations are provided by just 5% of congregants. ...some of the least religious countries are among those donating the highest amounts to charity.

Just sayin'

Robert Cornwall said...


In American Grace Robert Putnam and Dennis Campbell show that people who give at church are much more likely to give to other charities. The vast amount of money given to charity is given either to churches or by religious folks.

David said...

Wal-Mart, for instance, gives about $1.75 billion in food aid to charities each year, or twenty-eight times all of the money allotted for charity by the United Methodist Church and almost double what the LDS Church has given in the last twenty-five years.

It's not as simple as that. Vast amount? Self reported?

I'll leave it at that. Too taboo. We all could do better.