04 September 2012

A conflict of individualisms

It looks like David Brooks will be holding his nose while voting for Mitt Romney this fall. One of the New York Times's house conservatives, Brooks gives the Republicans credit for proposing necessary reforms while the Democrats, in his view, have no agenda but opposition to the Republican agenda. Brooks sympathizes with the GOP's self-description as a party representing the "strivers," the people who "who started small, struggled hard, looked within and became wealthy" in ways Democrats supposedly deplore. He agrees with Republicans that strivers are being smothered by regulations or impeded by a "labyrinthine" tax code. He agrees with them on what he perceives to be the facts, but there's something about the Republicans' attitude, as expressed at their national convention last week, that he doesn't like.

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.... These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish. 

But there’s a problem. I see what the G.O.P. is offering the engineering major from Purdue or the business major from Arizona State. The party is offering skilled people the freedom to run their race. I don’t see what the party is offering the waitress with two kids, or the warehouse worker whose wages have stagnated for a decade, or the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete.
The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. 

Republicans themselves may object to Brooks's account, denying every describing anyone's achievement as "solitary." The whole debate over who built what is about the source of initiative as far Republicans are concerned, not about whether anyone got rich singlehandedly. But it's probably not any claim to exclusive credit for initiative that damns "hyperindividualism" in Brooks's eyes.  It's the lack of the kind of "larger vision" Brooks identifies with Lincoln, the GOP's spiritual founder. Brooks's own larger vision seems to boil down to a responsibility to cultivate a society and culture that disseminates talent and inspires the right sort of ambition. The main point here is his resort to the pejorative "hyperindividualism" to note when a good quality has grown excessive. "Hyperindividualism" assumes an ideal or golden mean of "individualism." But that assumes that "individualism" is essentially one thing, when there are really multiple individualisms. If we believe that "every life is equally precious," which is a form of individualism, we could not countenance the sacrifice of any individual for a collective good, whether we use the individual as cannon fodder in war or sacrifice him to economic efficiency for the sake of competitiveness. Liberals can claim to be individualists because they claim to value every single life -- "No [blank] Left Behind" is an ideal motto of liberal individualism. Republicans are concerned with individual freedom of action in the economic realm, but less concerned with guaranteeing individual life beyond the right to be born. Which position is more "individualist?" If you can't answer except by using other terms to define correct individualism, than "individualism" itself may be a useless standard for judging policy.

But isn't Brooks himself espousing some individualism by joining in the general Republican praise of strivers? To the extent that he credits strivers with indispensable individual initiative, I suppose so, but I also assume that, for Brooks, the striver crosses the line into "hyperindividualism" when he believes himself to strive principally, if not exclusively, for his own benefit. The striver wouldn't need to give up everything to the collective to regain Brooks's good will, but he would have to affirm that he actually intends to benefit more than himself and his own, and that the good of others is a kind of obligation for him. Brooks must wonder why that seems so hard for Republicans to do today. The answer probably has a lot to do with the idea (or ideal) of competition. The Republican striver is probably motivated, at least in large part, by a belief that life is a competition with winners and losers (or between winners and losers), and that, life being a competition, everyone must strive or suffer. From such presumptions, a Republican striver may conclude that those he doesn't recognize as fellow strivers are entitled to no consideration whatsoever. Theirs may be a competitive individualism founded on the principle of "compete or die." Brooks, at least, believes that a nation has some obligation to cultivate the cultural infrastructure necessary to encourage socially-beneficial striving, but the "hyperindividualist" Republican striver may feel that it is all up to each person. That would explain Brooks's reference to "innate qualities." He seems to worry that his fellow Republicans believe that you either have what it takes or you don't, and that "government" can't give anyone "what it takes" if they don't have it already. I leave it up to Republicans to explain whether Brooks has characterized them wrongly. But Brooks himself can't fully explain how he distinguishes healthy individualism from unhealthy hyperindividualism without addressing the subject of competition, its necessity and its consequences. We should encourage him to elaborate. Philosophical disagreements within parties, rather than those between parties, are those most likely to result in something new.

1 comment:

Aaron Christiansen said...

Repugnicans will look at the very few individuals who "succeed" (ie start with little and become wealthy). Here is the root of my problem with that entire mentality: Do we, as a whole society and given the choice, do we really think the bar should be set so high that only a percentage of a percentage of the population can achieve the American dream, especially when considering that so many of them aren't even American citizens.