"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 31, 2012

Republican Hyper-Individualism

David Brooks has written in the New York Times about the dangers of what he calls the  ‘hyper-individualism’ espoused and promoted by the Republican party. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/31/opinion/party-of-strivers.html?_r=1&ref=opinion.  Brooks argues that individualism has been the heart and soul of the American Republic since its earliest days and is responsible for the enterprise, courage, and pioneering spirit that made the country what it is today.

Extreme individualism, however – the assumption that neither community nor government have any role to play in our further development – is off-base.  Republicans say that if the individual were only freed from the constraints of government taxation and regulation, the still-unleashed creative and innovative power in all of us would lead to unimaginable national wealth.  Yet this ignores the important support that government has played and will continue to play; and downplays the equal importance of community.  In fact Brooks echoes the misunderstood comment by President Obama that for ever individual, every entrepreneur, there is a complex network of government interventions that have supported and facilitated his success.

Few people realize the current role of government in their lives and if asked would far underestimate their importance.  The FDIC, for example, ensures bank deposits and protects entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens from losing their savings.  The federal court system is the venue for the adjudication of criminal and civil cases.  It offers the legal protection that is critical for the entrepreneur, hearing cases on bankruptcy, fraud, contract violations, and patent infringement. Federal regulations and import laws protect American business within the framework of Free Trade. 

The State Department, Department of Commerce, and Department of Agriculture, among others, have negotiated NAFTA and other regional trade organizations which facilitate the flow of American products and allow the import of critical importance to national businesses.  The State Department through its many technical attaches looks after American interests throughout the world, promoting American products and safeguarding the country from harmful foreign products.  The Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management oversee vast lands in the West and are responsible for negotiating contracts for energy exploitation.  The Department of Transportation ensures the efficient flow of land, air, and water traffic.  There are millions of veterans who receive state benefits. The list is practically endless.

At the same time many critics with David Brooks that many government institutions are sclerotic and in need of reform or elimination:

If you believe, as I do, that American institutions are hitting a creaky middle age, then you have a lot of time for this argument. If you believe that there has been a hardening of the national arteries caused by a labyrinthine tax code, an unsustainable Medicare program and a suicidal addiction to deficits, then you appreciate this streamlining agenda, even if you don’t buy into the whole Ayn Rand-influenced gospel of wealth.

This is the problem.  Most people considering the role of government turn immediately to those hot-button programs in obvious need of reform – such as Medicare and Social Security – and which most touch individual lives rather than the hundreds if not thousands of public interventions which are working quite well and without which we could not survive, let alone thrive.  There is no doubt that the Departments of Energy and Education could be eliminated; that agricultural subsidies could be drastically reduced; that the Department of Labor, EPA, and FDA could lighten up on their often stifling regulations.  Most federal agencies would benefit from the type of scrutiny proposed by Republicans.  It is the doctrinaire belief that government is bad per se that is the problem.

There is another important issue says Brooks:

There was almost no talk [at the RNC] 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.

Jefferson and the Founding Fathers intended just this; that the individual was only as good and as successful as the community within which he lived.  ‘The pursuit of happiness’ did not mean the unbridled pursuit of individual pleasure and satisfaction, but the Enlightenment view that citizens of a republic should disavow more personal and venal ambitions for the common good.  In other words, the individual, through his enterprise would create wealth for himself and for the community; and the community in turn would support him.  Condoleeza Rice best spoke for the vision of the Founding Fathers when she echoed Washington, Tocqueville, and Lincoln:

The powerful words in her speech were not “I” and “me” — the heroic individual. They were “we” and “us” — citizens who emerge out of and exist as participants in a great national project.

Rice celebrated material striving but also larger national goals — the long national struggle to extend benefits and mobilize all human potential. She subtly emphasized how our individual destinies are dependent upon the social fabric and upon public institutions like schools, just laws and our mission in the world. She put less emphasis on commerce and more on citizenship.

Where Brooks goes a bit soft is his assumption that government has a principal role to play in addressing issues that affect the poor:

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.

There may be a role for a public safety net to catch those who truly cannot make it on their own, and who through no fault of their own have fallen on hard times; but the Republicans are right in challenging the culture of dependency which assumes that most people are poor because of external factors.  Furthermore the GOP conviction that facilitating private sector growth will address those issues that contribute to poverty – unemployment and underemployment in particular – is not entirely wrong.

The individual, government, and community are all important for America’s progress and well-being.  Our job as citizens and voters is to assure an appropriate balance among them.

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