The Individual vs. The Community

By Deane Barker tags: politics

Your personal political philosophy is highly influence by how you view the way individuals relate to their larger community.

For example:

  • Conservatives view the individual as the prime mover. The individual is the engine of the economy and the engine of the community as a whole.

  • Liberals view the aggregate of individuals – the community itself – as the prime mover. The community that individuals create together is the engine that moves us forward.

This belief drives to what extent you believe the community (the government, in some form) should influence the actions of the individual:

  • Conservatives believe in individual liberty above all else. Leave the individual to themselves, and they will work things out to the general betterment of the larger community – their individual actions will work toward advancing the aggregate.

  • Liberals believe that the community should assist individuals to achieve greater things and that individuals themselves tend to act in their own self-interest to the detriment of the community. The community has a responsibility to enforce the fair rules of the game.

So a person’s political philosophy often comes down where their natural focus rests: on the individual or on the community?

This parallels the results of a survey by Pew Research.  People were asked what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.”

The results:

  • United States: 58% freedom, 35% guarantees

  • Britain: 38% freedom, 55% guarantees

  • Elsewhere in Europe: 62% guarantees

Roger Cohen from the NY Times sums it up:

This finding gets to the heart of trans-Atlantic differences. Americans, who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are hardwired to the notion of individual self-reliance. Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency.

Last year, I read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, which was an examination of exactly this concept – why people can have such profoundly different views of politics. What Haidt stated was something similar to what I said above – it largely comes down to how people view the individual in relationship to the community.

In fact, Haidt recounted a study which revealed how fundamentally different this view can be, based on your personal culture or background. Given a picture of a living room, someone from Culture/Background A might see the room itself in aggregate (“this is a living room”; the community), while someone from Culture/Background B might see the things that comprise the room (“this is a couch, a table, and a lamp in a room”; the individuals). One person immediately extrapolates the individuals to a larger community and that’s the thing he’s looking at. The other sees the individuals and stops there – he is, of course, aware that they comprise a living room together, but that’s not what he’s looking at.

So, do we view ourselves first as independent actors operating in the world, or do we think of the world first as something we are a part of?

These subconscious inclinations are ingrained in us as children and explain why some countries accept things like single-payer health care as natural and completely reasonable, and other countries damn-near go to war over it (ahem, us).

This is item #28 in a sequence of 113 items.

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