We know certain types of loners and social outcasts can turn to crime. This article isn’t about them. This article is about the idea of individualism and how it becomes a social problem over time. Tracing the source of social problems to individual moral failings or ineptness leads to some illogical and immoral results. Treat this article as a primer on the downside of individualism and an introduction to some of the problems with individualism as a pillar of social policy.
Surely, if Mustafa tried harder he wouldn’t be sleeping in Five Points Park. Right? Right. If Melissa had used birth control, she wouldn’t be single and pregnant with no job skills and no man. Right?
Both of those statements are only partly correct.
Ignoring the Structure of Society
I know people get tired of reading about racism and oppression, but what if those things really do explain why White people are doing better overall than Black people. You could blame Black people for not trying harder. At least that would be a consistent attitude if you also blame Melissa for being broke and pregnant.
Luck is Underrated
Individualistic myths lead us to think Joe is ahead of Andy in life because Joe just tried harder. Never when this narrative comes up are we invited to think about what “tried harder” really means. And if you can’t say what trying harder looked like, it is a bit hard to judge whether Andy is a bit of a slacker.
Maybe Andy is a slacker. Or maybe not. Maybe a medical emergency ruined his finances or forced him to drop out of college. He needed to work, and he got a decent job, but Joe has managed to earn $200,000 more in the 10 years since they both entered the labor force.
Joe may have gotten a boost from $12,000 that a deceased relative left him.
And that’s only one simple example of how dumb luck can set one person up for success and one for less success or even total failure.
Personal Traits are Overrated
It follows that if luck and social organization have quite a bit of influence on how much the individual gets out of life, then the value of intelligence, self-discipline, and creativity might be overstated. Is that true?
No, just as conservatives don’t think blind people can make themselves see again, liberals don’t think that shifting the focus to society absolves the individual of responsibility for pulling themselves together.
Liberals and conservatives agree with giving prison inmates a chance to better themselves through education or vocational training. There are many state and federal programs for prisoner education. If prisoners are solely responsible for their problems, then why help them?
Consequences of Promoting Individualism
Promoting individual responsibility can lead to some unfortunate political consequences and even some outright immoral social policies. The myth of personal responsibility leads to some wrong-headed and wasteful policy discussions, which lead to destructive legislation or no legislation.
Gun control offers an example of this problem. If every gun owner were 100% responsible, then there would be no accidental shootings or suicides. No one would be taken by surprise by armed muggers or home invaders. Everyone can always be ready for any contingency. Right?
No, of course not.
Failing to Connect the Individual and the Social
If Joe has a few drinks and drives home, will he be okay? Will we be okay? Joe is almost certain to make it. If I dump my used motor oil in the yard will I destroy nature? Probably not. But if you have a million Joe’s hitting the road each night and a million people like me dumping their motor oil every weekend, then we have a problem.
This is simple logic and math.
Everything Comes Down to Numbers
Some people wind up homeless and some people accidentally shoot family members for the same reason: numbers. I hope this point doesn’t seem too strained here, but all I can do is try my best.
If gun owners can’t be perfect and adults can’t 100% avoid every circumstance that causes homelessness, then you are going to end up with accidental shootings and with people sleeping rough. If you have fewer gun owners, accidental shootings should happen less often. If you have more people who can’t get help for addiction or mental illness, then we’ll all see more homeless people around.
Other things being equal, ten million gun owners will have more accidents than five million gun owners. Two million drunk drivers will have more accidents than one million drunk drivers. All of the reasons why you should be super careful where you point your gun cannot change this logic.
All of the obvious reasons you shouldn’t drink a few glasses of wine and go for a drive mean nothing if you have millions of people who both drink and own cars. Inevitably, some of those people are going to get drunk and drive. Most of those people are going to make it home without causing any harm. Some won’t though.
Individualism Might be a Straw Man
A sharp critic might wonder why I’m attacking individualism like this as if conservatives think EVERY personal problem is because someone was irresponsible or stupid. That’s not the argument at all, the critic would day.
Fine. That doesn’t make this worship of the self-reliant man or woman any better. Sometimes people really can’t stay out of trouble or get out of trouble through work and willpower. Sometimes people need social norms and social policies that help them solve their problems.