Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Sacred Individual

We Americans have come to value Thoreau over Jane Addams – individualism over social activism – preferring to elevate ourselves over our neighbors, convinced that selfishness is the correct approach to living life. Of course, we deny being selfish. Instead, we bandy about phrases like individual rights.

But individualism leads us to bad places. We all need each other to succeed in our society. Even the simple act of driving requires the assistance of our fellow travelers. We assume they will obey the rules of the road just as we obey them.

What if someone decides that the rules don’t matter to him? He’s special, so he ought to be able to drive wherever he wants, on the sidewalk or through a red light because he’s different, he’s following a calling we can’t hear.

You can see how that would devastate our society. So the needs of the many have to outweigh the needs of the few.

Not always, say the individualists. Sometimes we have to give individuals the freedom to succeed without burdensome regulation. Let the market handle all that. Let the meat producers inspect their own products; let Boeing inspect its own planes.

And don’t forget constitutional rights like freedom of religion. Who are you, government, to tell me that I have to vaccinate my children? My religious rights supersede your piddly social concerns. Or the right to bear arms. Who are you, government, to tell me what kind of weapons I can buy? I have rights granted me by the founding fathers that you can’t take away.

We love the story of the lone warrior who has endured tragedy and overcome it, elevating those around him in the process, and we imagine ourselves as fighters too, working to change society to align more closely with our view of what it ought to be. Never mind that we might be wrong or that we only fight when someone tries to make us do something we don’t want to do.

This belief in the power of the individual leads us to diminish the needs of the collective. What’s the harm in refusing to vaccinate my child? Or in buying a gas guzzler and driving it around the countryside for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon? Who am I really harming?

I go my own way. No one can tell me what to do. But this is where things break down. If no one can tell anyone else what to do, then attempts at collective effort will be difficult at best. If we all go our own way, we can’t arrive at a common destination.

So we form groups and try to bring others on board. Yet, if the groups pursue opposing goals (pro-choice vs. anti-abortion, e.g.), we get nowhere. And how do we take collective action when we can’t even agree on the underlying facts?

Ideally, we turn over decision-making on the big issues to a consortium of leaders who will, after careful deliberation and consultation with experts, dictate our actions. That’s what government is supposed to be. Unfortunately, our leaders have fallen victim to the same polarization that afflicts us all. Half want X, half want Y.

The individual reigns, society eventually falls.


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