Individualism–Collectivism Scale

15 Mar , 2021 Culture,Lifestyle,Minimalism

Individualism–Collectivism Scale

“If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Toni Morrison

You can trace the individualistic mindset of Americans to its founding. That pursuit of various individual freedoms fueled the don’t tread on me spirit. Whether it was the freedom of religion, the lawless expansion into occupied indigenous lands, or the right to practice morally bereft chattel slavery. Americans have demanded the room to pursue what they solely want no matter the impact to their neighbor. It is no surprise then that “the United States scores highest on the individualism end of [the individualism-collectivism scale … and consequently] is the only industrialized country in the world that does not provide its citizens with universal health care.1

Fast forward to the present day and you can see that the roots of this me first attitude has congealed into the foundation of our unfettered, bubble producing, boom or bust, and consumption fueled capitalist society. The fact is, none of the riches are ever going to trickle down, not everyone has bootstraps to pull up, and the income gap and well being of the middle class has only grown worse2 since we doubled down on an isolationist and greed at all cost that rhetoric that is drenched in racism.

One of the key arguments I hear in favor of the individualistic approach is based in the merits of capitalism. Particularly, the American flavor of it. That Silicon Valley, our industrialist titans, and other various industry tycoons can only happen here, where we make greed a virtue and focus resources towards the individuals that rise above the rest. There is an undercurrent of an idea here, that if we took care of everyone equally, it would destroy this sort of wealth building spirit and make lazy hoards out of all of us.

This sort of thinking denies the successful international corporations and wealthy persons that have done well in high tax and collectivist societies. It demonizes the average worker as unworthy. It puts so many of us onto soul sucking rat race hedonic treadmills to pursue a never ending consumption lifestyle. As if there is no way ingenuity and creativity can spawn out of a framework where access to healthcare, education, housing, and investment are equally guaranteed and equitable.

I am not arguing for socialism because the fact is America has already implemented many socialist policies some of which I will list later. I’m arguing for a collectivist and human driven design of our public policies that balances out individual freedom with sustainability. Ideas that allows individuals to thrive not by stepping on and over others but by letting their own individual creativity and hard work carry them forward AFTER all basic needs are met for everyone. The alternative is a rife with examples that show how even a small acknowledgement of our interdependence can stave off issues that compound into disasters over time.

– Broken homes where one parent is arrested for small crime, the family becomes single income household, childcare costs mount, and opportunities shrink. The tax on social safety nets increases and then the blame game starts.

–  A society where we hoard toilet paper, refuse to wear masks, and let thousands die because we can’t stop the capitalist train long enough to endure a pandemic. An eroded social safety net is put under more strain and those dependent on it are left in the lurch and forced to take on unnecessary risks.

– A single state with a fierce independent spirit goes it alone to produce all of their own power. The climate change delivers usual weather and crushes their grid, leaving millions without power. A deafening silence and awkward absence of leadership highlights how 20+ years of Republican control and isolationist ideology failed them.

Social conditioning has primed us to accept these above examples as the norm but international travel has shown me otherwise. The fact is America has instituted collectivist policies before that show real promise for meaningful social change. However, their implementation is either so badly butchered or routinely gutted by Republican racists tinged attacks and individualistic greed, that they fall short of their intended goals and leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. From Grant’s enforcement of voting rights with Federal Troops in the south, to Social Security, the G.I. Bill, Public Schools, and of course the Affordable Care Act. There are dozens of socialist style programs that have been implemented over 150 years3.

Each of these programs was meant to better the common good but have been eroded away by constant attacks from the right. Each time these programs are weakened they are rarely killed but just ends up costing us collectively and yielding mixed results individually. Heather McGee analyzes in her book, The Sum of Us, what racism costs America and how individualism plays a part. Additionally, it was reported in a USA Facts study that “Black women are more likely to own a business than women from any other racial group.” You have to wonder how much further along their businesses would have gotten if access to VC investment and bank financing were more equitable. Not to mention how much of this spirit of entrepreneurship is fueled by all other doors being closed to them?

Some of the systemic social issues that individualism perpetuates include homelessness, student loan debt, disparate retirement stability, and of course a broken healthcare system. Inequalities that will “cost the US economy between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion in lost consumption and investment between 2019 and 20284.” Think of how many potentials are lost in an everyone for themselves approach? Potential scientists, teachers, creatives, or just plain everyday citizens left to their own whims and harming no one. The Nordic countries are probably the best example of how policy written with a collectivist mindset can really improve people’s lives. Finland’s healthcare compromise with business. Norway’s education system with free tuition even for foreign students. Sweden’s gender equality policies. Switzerland’s high gun ownership but low gun violence due to common sense gun laws.

To close I will leave you with the philosophy of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a South African Nguni Bantu word that translates into “I am because we are.” A first principles idea that we are a part of and serve our common humanity first. In doing so, we uplift ourselves and others through caring for the whole. Growing up in our house, this Ubunty was expressed through the phrase that “it takes a village” and exemplified by the chorus of aunts and uncles that pooled resources and time to raise the troop of cousins. I talk about Ubuntu because I am under no illusion that racism will go away over night; but instead that maybe a collective view of our interdependence could take root.

[1] Gladwell, Malcolm. (2008). Outliers, 202-204.

[2] USA Facts. (2020). “White people own 86% of wealth and make up 60% of the population.

[3] Enforcement Act of 1870, Social Security 1935, Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, Department of Education 1980, ACA 2010

[4] Losavio, Joseph. (2020), International Monetary Fund – Fall 2020 Issue, What Racism Costs Us All

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