25 July 2012

Individualism between liberty and selfishness

Jonah Goldberg, the Republican columnist, wants to disabuse fellow conservatives of the notion that President Obama has an un-American worldview. In Goldberg's opinion, Obama's views are certainly radical, and certainly wrong, but they have a solid American pedigree. Goldberg's latest column is another indictment of the American "progressive" tradition, which the columnist identifies with such thinkers as Herbert Croly (a founder of The New Republic) and the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Progressivism's flaw, in Goldberg's view, is its failure to appreciate individualism. He quotes Croly, damningly by his own standards, as a source for the alleged progressive belief that "the individual has no meaning apart from the society in which his individuality has been formed." For Goldberg, that means that progressives see individuals as creatures of society, i.e. the state, who can only be "free" through state action. Goldberg, by implicit comparison, believes that individuality is prior to socialization, that we are who we are to some defining degree before society does anything to shape us. Or at least we have a right to think so.

Like many Republicans, Goldberg writes in reaction to the President's recent challenge to the notion that successful people are essentially self-made. "You didn't get there on your own," has been Obama's mantra, and Goldberg actually concedes the point. "We're all indebted to others, and we all rely on government to provide some basic things," he writes, "Only the straw-men conservatives of Obama's imagination yearn for an America with no roads and bridges." But the progressive viewpoint takes this "truism" too far, Goldberg believes, in a clueless, tone-deaf attempt to deny the significance of individual agency. For Goldberg, the sense of individual accomplishment is a core element of the "individual pursuit of happiness" to which Americans consider themselves innately entitled.

Just because the word "individual" appears in there doesn't make it a selfish ideal; it means it's a vision of liberty. We each find our happiness where we seek it. For some that's in business, for others the arts, or religion or family or a mix of them all. And very often our happiness depends upon the satisfaction we feel at having conquered problems on our own. 

How do we reconcile Goldberg's two assertions: that "It's true that no man's accomplishments are entirely his own" and "our happiness depends upon the satisfaction we feel at having conquered problems on our own." It seems to go something like this: individualism is a vision of liberty. He didn't say individualism is liberty, but called it a vision. This vision is apparently linked to a feeling of satisfaction individualists crave. Their happiness depends on feeling that they've conquered problems on their own. They need to feel autonomous and self-reliant. Most importantly, they need to feel that there's a limit to what they owe others despite our acknowledged interdependence. That sense of individual accomplishment justifies the truncation of obligation. As if to prove my point, Goldberg quotes the President once more, letting the statement, "a problem facing any American is a problem facing all Americans" hang in the air like a slow pitch over home plate. Goldberg's own peroration on individualism is apparently intended to refute Obama's words, or at least to explain why Goldberg disagrees with them. Why isn't Goldberg's individualism a selfish ideal? Because he says it isn't? We'd need to know what he means by selfish, but all we get in that direction is the insinuation that progressives like Obama (who has allegedly given "little attention" to poor relations in Africa) are the selfish ones because they want the state to do what individuals should do themselves for the needy. For the sake of arguments, let's concede that Goldberg isn't arguing for selfishness. It should be more obvious that he's arguing for egoism, for a need to feel that our individual contributions are necessary, sufficient, decisive and special, that we are not interchangeable and replaceable, and that some of us deserve more for our special contributions than others. But only the straw-men progressives of Goldberg's imagination yearn for an America without individuals pursuing individual ideals of happiness. That leaves Goldberg accepting Obama's most basic claim while rejecting its implications for no sound reason. The columnist complains that Obama sees an individual sense of accomplishment as a mirage, but his own arguments do less to disprove the premise than to assert an individual right to believe in the mirage.

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