Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Understanding America's Identity: Individualism versus Collectivism

In superficial respects, the United States and Great Britain are remarkably similar - so why do I feel more at home living here? And even though I do, why do some things that Americans stand for leave me scratching my head in utter bewilderment?

The answer, I believe, is that I simply haven't 'got' America yet. Even two years into my new life, I'm constantly finding my preconceptions about American life challenged.

Take politics, for example. As a European, I'm constantly bewildered by some of the positions so-called 'conservatives' take. How could they possibly think that way? What are they smoking?

Well, following last week's epiphany about life in America, I continued my studies and discovered even more about America's identity. It challenged not just my preconceptions about this great nation, but also the foundation of my personal and political beliefs.

This discovery came after reading Mark Levin's fascinating book Liberty and Tyranny - I reviewed it here. I learned from Levin's book that there's an important ideological difference between the United States and the countries I grew up in - one that goes a long way to explaining why people on the right wing think so 'differently' to Eurotrash like me.

In America - since the nation's birth - individualism has been key foundation of society. Conversely, in Europe (especially following World War II) there's always been more of a push towards collectivism.

The difference is subtle, but profound.

In Europe, it's understood that an individual's freedoms are secondary to the 'collective good' of society - or, at least, that's how I've always felt. It explains why we have such an ironclad welfare system, universal health care (with the UK having one of the few true examples of socialized medicine in the world) and laws and regulations that can only be described as 'nannyish.'

But it also explains why Europeans lack some significant rights that Americans have cemented in their constitution.

There's no written right to Freedom of Speech - demonstrated by the Spanish government punishing those who are critical of their Royal Family, or the Dutch government letting Muslim extremists muzzle the press during the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.

The American's 'Fifth Amendment' - the right not to incriminate yourself in court - was overruled by the European Court of Human Rights - who declared: "The court did not accept the applicants' argument that the right to remain silent and the right not to incriminate oneself were absolute rights."

There's no de facto Freedom of Religion here either - unless that religion happens to be Islam.

Gun control is perhaps the most explicit example of where collectivism trumps individualism in Europe. In the United Kingdom, there's been a universal ban on handguns since the Dunblane massacre in 1996. An individual's freedom to own a gun is considered secondary to the 'collective benefit' of living in a gun-free society (a concept flawed slightly by the fact that gun crime has increased year-on-year following the ban.)

In America, none of these situations would theoretically exist. Even that final issue - the right to bear arms - is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Right now, the Supreme Court is reviewing a handgun ban in Chicago to consider whether banning handguns in the city is constitutional.

[It's objectively not - Editorial Bear]

Americans take their personal liberties seriously - to an extent I've not understood or appreciated until this week.

It all goes right back to the beginning of the nation's history. Reading Robert Middlekauff's brilliant book The Glorious Cause, a comprehensive analysis of American independence, I learned that individualism was perhaps the single most important motivation for overthrowing British rule in the first place.

The Founding Fathers were mostly common people; John Adams was a lawyer, Ben Franklin a printer and William Blount a merchant. The reasons they had for rebellion weren't intellectual or spiritual in nature - they were purely practical. These common men resented the British government regulating how they ran their businesses, taxed their profits (quite modestly, by today's standards) and enacted laws to curb their freedoms.

Concepts like democracy, providence and 'inalienable rights' were ideals the Founding Fathers picked up on en route to independence - not what set them on that path in the first place. Equally, the reason the American revolution has survived while other revolutions have come and gone is because it was born from practical principles - not abstract ones.

In the two centuries that followed, individual liberty has remained one of the overriding principles of American life. Even the American Civil War was triggered by the pursuit of individual freedoms (or, at least, an interpretation of them.)

The North, for example, sought to emancipate the slaves. On the other hand, the South sought to free themselves from what they saw as a federal attempt to usurp state sovereignty (you can read a fascinating, if controversial paper on it here.)

The one constant truth about American society? That nobody in this nation likes to be told what they can and can't do. Just take Prohibition: When alcohol was banned in the United States for the 'common good,' the nation rebelled shamelessly.

Formerly law-abiding citizens brewed gin in their bathtubs, bookstore owners opened basement speakeasys and senators and congressmen rubbed shoulders with bootleggers and gangsters over illicit cocktails. The individual's freedom to enjoy a drink was almost universally accepted as more important than the collective duty to remain temperate.

And that rebellious instinct survives today. In fact, it more than survives - it's embedded in the American identity. Even though we live in a society that sometimes seems incredibly restrictive - the 55 mile an hour speed limit, the drinking age of 21 and the fact that nipples are barred from network television - America's still defined by rebellion more than conformity.

And that's why I simply didn't 'get' so many aspects of life here in America - because I didn't 'get' that aspect of the American character. Remember, I'm British - and we're supposed to be conformists by principle (which is perhaps why I never felt like I 'fitted in' back in Britain.)

Americans, by their very nature, are outlaws.

Understanding this has illuminated me on so many formerly incomprehensible aspects of American politics. The health care protesters, for example.

I never understood why they so passionately protested against Obama's proposed health care reforms (well, except for the fact that they were lied to, manipulated and used by health industry insiders like Rick Scott.)

But now, perhaps, I do. Because while I argue that Obama's reform bill will theoretically benefit millions, anti-reform protesters have a point when they warn that government-funded health care might mean government-mandated lifestyle choices.

Smoke? Drink? Eat too much fatty food? According to the anti-reformists, the government will be able to deny you their much-touted medical coverage if you make unhealthy lifestyle choices (and that's exactly what some British politicians are considering.)

[But let's be honest here - private health insurers already do exactly the same thing - deny coverage to those whose lifestyle choices make them a liability - Editorial Bear.]

So going right back to the beginning, I finally understand why Mark Levin claimed conservatives were the ones who maintained 'liberty' in America. I'd never understood that before. I'd always believed that liberals, by their very definition, were the champions of 'liberty.'

But in Liberty and Tyranny, Levin explained how liberals were actually against what he perceived as American 'liberty.' The basis of their political movement was collectivism, not individualism - and that was un-American.

And he's right. The liberal agenda is one that pursues 'the greater good' - even at the cost of individual freedoms. For example:
  • Tightened gun control curbs an individual's right to own firearms and defend themselves in their home (even if it theoretically reduces gun crime.)
  • The so-called 'fairness doctrine' unfairly dictates the freedom of political speech on radio and television (even if it theoretically balances out the right-wing bias of talk radio.)
  • Increased taxes take an individual's hard-earned money away and 'redistribute it' to somebody else (even if the 'somebody else' theoretically needs that money more.)
The problem with the liberal agenda, even if it's well-intentioned, is that it ceases to view the American people as a nation of individuals, but sees them as a homogeneous whole.

There will always be opposition to this way of thinking - because entrenched in the American identity is the principle that we are governed by consent - and what we 'give' to the greater good should never, ever be 'taken away' from the individual.

Everything that an individual American contributes to his community is to be given voluntarily - because the right to own and keep our property is defined in the Declaration of Independence as as 'inalienable right.'

But while the liberal agenda clearly clashes with some of the principles of individualism, we can't pretend that the conservative agenda doesn't do exactly the same thing. Mark Levin might claim that conservatives are the cornerstone of liberty, but lets look at how some of their policies tout collectivism over individualism:

Conservatives want to ban gay marriage and deny homosexuals civil rights equal to those of heterosexuals (like protection from being fired because you're gay.)

The reason for this? They claim that society as a whole will benefit and it 'protects marriage' (even though divorce rates are lower in states where same-sex unions are allowed.)

The problem with this? Equal protection under the law and the right to marry whoever you want (with no reference to gender) are both principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence. The conservatives might argue that the fluffy, undefined 'benefit' to 'society as a whole' somehow outweighs an individual's right to live their life on their own terms - but they're wrong.

Likewise, many religious conservatives want to force schools to teach monotheistic religious doctrine, masked as pseudo-science like 'intelligent design.' They argue that having 'competing theories' about creation, evolution and existence enrich education.

However, this agenda violates the constitution's implication that there must be a total separation of 'church' and 'state' in America.

Individual Americans have a right to freedom of religious expression - which is clearly violated when schools are forced to teach theories that are rooted exclusively in monotheistic Judeo-Christian theology (which exclude beliefs like Hinduism, Buddhism and Paganism.) You can't teach one religious doctrine unless you teach all of them (or, more correctly, none of them.)

Just like with the liberal agenda, the conservatives view the community as some homogeneous lump, instead of a collection of individuals. They argue that denying an individual their freedoms is somehow acceptable if society as a whole benefits - but that makes them just as guilty of inhibiting 'liberty' as the liberals are!

That being said, while there are clearly areas in which conservatives contradict their claim of championing liberty, there are other areas of the conservative agenda that I've come to reconsider.

Home schooling, for example. I used to argue that homeschooling kids, especially with a curriculum based in religion, was somehow tantamount to child abuse. Now, I've come to realize that it's not.

I may not like it, but a parent's right to raise their kid how they see fit is exactly that - their right. If they want to teach them religious rubbish, like 'intelligent design', then they're allowed to. It's a constitutional freedom - the freedom of religious expression.

Likewise, I've come to appreciate the subject of abortion in a different way. Abortion's always made me uneasy, even when I argued that banning it would be ineffective. But while I'm not about to start joining any pro-life rallies, I 'get it' now.

Just like I argued that circumcising infants is brutal, incontrovertible child abuse, I understand how conservatives view abortion as cold-blooded murder of an unborn infant. The 'right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' is inalienable - and the first and foremost of those rights is the right to be born in the first place!

I also 'get' the right to bear arms now.

I personally hate guns and it makes my skin crawl when I read about tragic accidents by stupid gun owners. But the right to own a gun is as old as America itself. In many ways, it is the most perfect example of how an individual's right always trump collectivism in America.

Owning a gun is a responsibility - and mishandling it could kill somebody. But conservatives believe that the risk of a single irresponsible gun owner hurting somebody isn't enough justification to take away the rights of the majority - who are responsible.

An individual's right trumps the perceived 'collective benefit.' That's perhaps the most important principle in American society.

And finally, I 'get' that.

I might not agree with it wholeheartedly - I am still European after all - but I still 'get it'. And the fact that I finally do means I can't write the conservative movement off like I used to.


Paul Mitchell said...

Roland, while you might think that you are gradually shoehorning into the understanding, you miss a very important point. Your statement that "Conservatives want to ban gay marriage" is a huge indicator how you miss that entire point. True "conservatives" (individualists) want to ban government regulation of ALL marriages. Normal or freakazoid, both.

Another huge falsehood is that liberals today are even remotely liberal, they are totally dictatorial in their ideology. Sorry, those of my ideology, the ones that actually produce the motive power that run this country, shall never stand for our wealth to be confiscated without a revolt.

I earned my money. It is mine. If an individual is down on their luck and they need money, they should ask me for a job, not cash so they can continue to avoid contributing. Sorry, giving that person unearned money does nothing but further erode the work ethic that we had in spades not too long ago, before "liberals" took over.

"Healthcare" is a huge, monumental issue that I have completely taken down numerous times. The fact that GB's system is so utterly inferior to ours should give someone pause to actually contemplate what they are proposing. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone is going to pay for this, and it is NOT going to be me.

Tom said...

Basically right.

Let me also point out that rational people often disagree on what's best for the country. The collectivist, on both sides, tries to argue that he knows what's right for all of us... and tries to impose his position on all of us. When two collectivists disagree, at most one of them can go home happy.

The individualist realizes that we'll never agree, and so it's best to come up with solutions that don't require people to agree. When two individualists disagree, they both go home happy.

This individualism is what makes the American experiment so incredibly stable. Like Europe, we've had religious wars (the Utah war comes to mind). Unlike Europe, the casualties from our religious wars are measured in the dozens.

Instead of fighting, we acknowledge that the other guy has a right to be wrong.

Luke S said...


I find it slightly ironic though that-admittedly, as someone who has never been to the states, and can only go on what I see and read-that a nation founded on the ideas of individualism can have such a vast percentage of people that are so frantic about making sure americans are straight, christian, non-deviant-in-any-way drones.

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 10/07/2009, at The Unreligious Right

Tim Covington said...

You have hit on why I call myself a libertarian and not a conservative or a liberal. The hard line liberals and conservatives are two sides of the collectivist coin. I choose not to partake of that currency.

realtor in Vancouver said...

Hi. Interesting reading. I'm Canadian but I have friends from U.S. and also from Europe. The biggest difference that I see among them is their position to their home country. Americans are usually very proud to live in America and are patriots, even when they disagree with some political issues. On the other hand, European people are much more open-minded. However, there are many exceptions on both sides. I tried to be objective as much as possible.

Best regards,

Tom said...

A vast percentage of people that are so frantic about making sure americans are straight, christian, non-deviant-in-any-way drones.

At the same time, we need to looks about how these people go about it. With a few exceptions (like government-regulated broadcasting) they try to use the power of persuasion, rather than the fist of government.

Anonymous said...

I think that the two main problems with individualism are that it ignores the massive interdependence in modern societies and that there are questions that concern everyone and that will never find a rational answer if everyone is merely acting in their own best interests. This latter point is basically what's called the tragedy of commons, but it applies mostly to environmental, resource and insurance issues today. The former point is mostly a moral one: The individualist strongly believes in his right to what he earned with his hard word, while he completely ignores the necessary contributors to that success. The individualist believes in individual achievement, while all achievement in collective. No manager succeeds without workers, other companies, the failure of his competitors and many other factors completely external to him. In this way, he is ideologically deluded. The collectivist on the other hand faces the serious problem of figuring out what "the collective good" means in any given case and mostly, I don't think there is an answer. In some cases it's easy, though: not having a nuclear war and not killing all the fish in the sea e.g.

Paul Mitchell said...

ignorantarmies' comment requires a redirection toward sanity.

"The individualist strongly believes in his right to what he earned with his hard word (sic), while he completely ignores the necessary contributors to that success."

I totally realize the other contributors to my success. I design and supervise the construction of buildings. To perform this function, I use a computer, which I paid my money to purchase (recognition), I use software, that I used my money to purchase (recognition), I select builders to construct them that I pay to perform their duties (recognition). The list of people that I recognize by paying my hard earned money to are endless.

Your argument is moot.

Paul Mitchell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Great post Roland!

I very much enjoy reading your thoughts on things because you are intellectually honest. I also like your perspective from not being raised an American.

Susanne said...

I enjoyed this and have been enjoying your blog for a few weeks now. Good to read an "outsider's" perspective.

Anonymous said...

I like your response Prof. Tom, and I agree. But in many cases (pro-lifers, gun enthusiasts) they seem to be extremely manic about it, to the point of intimidation, abuse, and (occasionally) violence.

Agree with us or you're a monster.

Surely they don't use the fist of government purely because the government won't pick a side on such divisive issues?