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The Myth of Individualism

Updated on November 3, 2011

An Argument for So-called Redistribution of Wealth

I always find it strange when people in the United States claim that they take care of themselves. I want to ask them if they have some crops growing and animals grazing in their backyards; various tools in their garages to manufacture and repair all of their needed goods and devices; and basic medical, dental, legal, and other professional training to perform vital services for themselves. The truth is that people in modern industrial societies live more in a state of mutual interdependence than anyone else in human history. We are a society of specialists and traders, and without the efforts of people who specialize in tasks that we are unable to perform, we will not survive for long. But in spite of this obvious fact, the myth of “rugged individualism” lives on in the United States.

My other favorite, closely related myth is the notion that all people, if they just worked hard enough, could be rich in the United States. The simple truth, as stated in the first paragraph, is that society could not function without people who are performing low and medium-wage jobs. Without people picking crops, cleaning buildings, disposing of trash, loading and unloading goods, and performing a host of other tasks, things would fall apart rather quickly. And the lifestyles of wealthy people, who are often given credit for “earning” their riches, would not be possible. So it is in the interest of the rich to ensure that society can sustain a population of workers that can perform these vitally important, although often disparaged, tasks.

This is not an argument for socialism. I recognize that governments are not up to the task of managing complex economies, and that personal incentives are necessary to get people to work hard. This is not an argument for social justice. After decades of hearing that term repeated again and again, I still don’t know what the hell it means. I know of no ways of calculating the definition of a “fair wage.” I don’t know what it means for an individual to pay his or her “fair share” of taxes. And this is definitely not an argument for the government issuing large amounts of “handouts.” Public works and job retraining programs are, in my mind, a much more productive and fair use of the government’s money – for people who truly have the capacity to work - than food stamps or welfare checks.

Instead, this is an appeal to simple pragmatism. The modern welfare state and other forms of government “wealth redistribution” did not develop to solve all of society’s social problems. They were developed in order to help maintain social order. When too much of a society’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the rich, the situation will inevitably become unstable. And this goes beyond “class warfare” and the possibility that the poor will riot in the streets and take up arms against the powers that be. A capitalist economy that relies on continuous consumption cannot function properly when large numbers of people do not have the purchasing power to keep the industrial machine going. It is important to keep in mind that the financial crashes of the late 1920’s and of 2008 came after periods in which wealth was increasingly concentrated into the hands of the richest people. In both cases, people turned to risky borrowing in order to offset their lack of real purchasing power, and we all know (I hope) how that turned out.

In a society of mutual interdependence, it is in all of our interests to have at least some of the wealth “trickle down” to average Americans. Capitalism, when left to itself, seems to lead toward wealth concentration. (They key to making lots of money, after all, is already having lots of money.) So if the private sector is unable or unwilling to pay sufficient wages to many of the people who perform the vitally important tasks that keep the system operating, then it may be necessary for the government to engage in some form of so-called “wealth redistribution.” And while my argument for this is mostly practical, I believe that there is also a solid philosophic basis for actions that some will understandably see as unfair. In a society where it is difficult for people to claim that they truly earned anything on their own, there is something to be said for the notion that all people who are willing and able to work deserve to enjoy at least some of the fruits of our society’s collective labor.


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    • jgshorebird profile image

      Jack Shorebird 4 years ago from Southeastern U.S.

      Freeway: We are all mutually, but voluntarily interdependent, if we so choose. I can live in the forest alone and forage or live in city and shop. But I can be independent, not meaning alone, but meaning with rights - as I have stated - as you have stated.

      And you never deserve the fruits of another's labor, unless he/she trades you or voluntarily gives it to you - as say: charity. To say otherwise is to say you have a right to another's property, simply to say it? I think this is very important - if not the crux of the issue: by what right can I steal?

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 4 years ago

      That sounds nice in theory. The trouble is that we are all mutually interdependent. Whether or not I deserve the fruits of another's labor is beside the point. I need others, and it is a fantasy to believe that I am remotely self-sufficient.

      The problem that I increasingly have with political discussion is that too many people rarely move beyond the theoretical. So we lay out a bunch of abstract principles, never diving into how these principles translate into reality. So when I talk about individualism, I am not addressing the issue of rights. I am merely pointing out the reality that none of us take care of ourselves.

    • jgshorebird profile image

      Jack Shorebird 4 years ago from Southeastern U.S.

      You do not define Individualism in proper terms. It is not that people are islands onto themselves, they are persons - separate onto themselves, but guaranteed basic rights to earn, live, and keep. And trade. And build. With the rights to their own lives, their own freedom and their own property. Riches are never guaranteed, just the freedom to try to be rich. Society is simply a collection of individuals - a collection of them, but not a 'collective' of them. You do not deserve the fruits of another's labor - ever. That would require force - involuntary servitude.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 5 years ago

      If there is a national religion in the United States, it is individualistic materialism. And as you said, the easier the money the better. Unfortunately, in recent years, speculation has often been more rewarded than actual economic productivity.

      Thanks for stopping by. I will be checking out more of your hubs in the near future.

    • arb profile image

      arb 5 years ago from oregon

      Another good piece of work. I have watched the rise of individualism rise across this country like a new religion. I think we are trading the moral fabric which once guided capitalism with short cuts that bring profit quicker than it did before. We don't only want it all, we want it fast. I am for individualism, but, not at the expense of principles just as dear to me. As with all things, it is the fabric in which it is clothed that will define us in the end. BTW wrote a hub "America the beautiful" I think yuou will enjoy it. Be well my friend. It was a worthy read.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 6 years ago

      Jeff, I agree that since capitalism seems to lead toward wealth concentration, something must be done to offset it for the good of society as a whole.

      Christopher, your last line sums up my point very well.

      CMHypno, it will be interesting to see the impact of automation over the next few decades. One of the keys, I guess, is to have an adaptable population of workers.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Modern welfare states are the next step on from the Roman 'bread and circuses' methods of keeping the population quiet and reasonably happy. Trouble is as technology develops, a lot of people have lost their manual labour and service jobs but still need and want to work

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      That was a very interesting, and well argued article. Capitalism will always be the best system, as it gives the best incentive to people to "get on". But it does need to be leavened with a large element of fairness. Opportunity should be open to as many people as possible.

      Also there should be no looking down on people who do menial jobs. The person who cleans the executive toilets is just as much worthy of respect as the CEO that sits on them.

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      An interesting take on the whole wealth-concentration/wealth-distribution discussion.

      Some would argue that the government has been complicit in redistributing wealth for the past 30 years or so--but redistributing the wealth of the middle class and working poor to the already-wealthy, rather than the other kind of redistribution. You know: the kind that some of us seem to be so terrified of.

      But really, increasing taxes on those who can afford it, and using the revenue for public works projects is exactly the sort of thing that saved the US from falling into communism in the 30s.