You vs. Everyone

The self-sufficient individual, the rugged pioneer, the dauntless cowboy, even the self-made millionaire. These are American icons, the men who make our chests swell with pride.

We should, and do, celebrate the competence this icon represents. This can-do attitude is one of the reasons we are not presently living in Hitler’s Third Reich. Individual competence is a great strength, something that was characteristic of most Americans at one time (but note that the icon is rarely a woman). All of us could make things, improvise to provide what we needed.

But all of this is gone now. Few of us can do what everyone used to do, and all we are left with is the John Wayne swagger, without substance, the most recent representatives being the cowboy-boot wearing cotton-farmer from Texas, and the silver-spoon, swaggering Texas Yalie.

There is a great deal wrong with our beloved icon these days. To begin with, our swaggering cowboys talk real loud, and aren’t interested in actually contemplating the truth of their own beliefs. They tend to believe it because they believe it, regardless of the facts, and they loudly proclaim that anyone who doesn’t think their way is to be pushed aside, ignored, defeated.

This is hardly the portrait of an admirable individual.

In politics, this swagger and loud braggadocio is much admired by certain people with, perhaps, not so much confidence, and a bit of uncertainty about what they should believe. Such people are inclined to believe the self-assured John Wayne types, and not the less heroic types who devote diligent effort and intelligence to finding the facts.

Still, it is not the Texas braggart who is the real problem when we speak of individualism versus collectivism in politics, or in the direction the country should take. The problem is our collective failure to even consider what is best for the country, and what is best for the country in every case is not to pretend that we are a nation of 230-million separate and self-sufficient individuals.

We are not. Like it or not, we live not only in Republican daddy-dominated families, but in groups of people in neighborhoods, cities, states, regions, and one great nation. We do not live alone under the prairie sky. Remember 9/11? We were all Americans then, with a common heart, not lonesome cowboys, disconnected, responsible to no one.

Is individualism the best way to manage our lives in this modern world? It is not. In nearly every way, we function most effectively as a sharing community rather than as an individual. Consider the ways we yield our individualism in order to achieve a better result. Most of us don’t work alone, we work in groups. We are concerned for the quality of our neighborhood, and with our neighbors, even if we don’t know them, we will oppose anything that threatens it. We want our city and its government to behave responsibly, and are outraged when we find some official taking bribes or otherwise wasting our money. We have the same concerns about our state and the nation as a whole, and we act as communities, not as individuals.

Collective activity is also far more efficient and economical than individual actions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current hot political topic of the role of individualism in public life, and Republicans are embracing a fiction that says individual action is always superior. It boils down to a debate over the proper roles of individualism and collectivism in our lives, and particularly in our government. Do we believe government plays a useful role in our lives, or do we believe that government is our enemy, as Republicans do?

We don’t have to sacrifice our individualism in order to act collectively. It isn’t necessary to consult a committee to buy a car; just buy it. But it takes collectivism to decide to build new school structures, or to replace an aged sewer system, things that must be bought with public money, and that’s how we do it.

Everybody understands that community and national costs like infrastructure, emergency services, the military, etc. can only be met collectively, and that the cost must be equitably borne by all (I take that back: some conservatives do not, although they haven’t explained where our roads and services are to come from). But most of our current debate centers around the costs of education, health care, and retirement. The question is simply, What are the best ways to provide these necessities?

In all cases, it is clear that the most efficient and cost-effective way is collectively. Yet the Republican position is that this must not be. Grade school education perhaps, but their ideal is that we must each pay for our own education at the time we receive it. Health care must be individually purchased by those who use it. Those who can’t afford it should simply die, as the audience at a recent Tea Party debate shouted. Retirement must be individually financed from individual earnings.

But doing these things individually is the most costly and least efficient way possible, a ridiculous and ineffective waste of money. We as communities can give ourselves far better services collectively. Our insurance costs, particularly health insurance costs, would be cut by half with a national plan like all other advanced nations have. Retirement might be adequately financed individually, but not until every worker is adequately paid, a goal we do not come close to meeting and are not attempting to address. Further, very few people, even among the most avid Republicans, have the self-control to consistently save adequate sums for retirement. A simple national plan would be far more efficient and easy, would provide for all earners, and would eliminate the worst of the poverty that characterizes the lives of low income earners who are no longer able to work. All this would be good for the country.

I see and hear the standard Republican demand for individual responsibility every day. No one can be against individual responsibility where it is appropriate. The problem is, Republicans want to force individualism on us in places where it is neither appropriate, effective, or efficient.

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