America: All for one and all for one

July 04, 2012 10 min read

In honor of the Fourth of July, here is my chapter about America from the forthcomingGood vs Good book.  Of the Eight Great Goods (Life, Relationships, Equality, Growth, Stability, Belief, Joy, and Individuality), America is the country in the world that most clearly places Individuality as the top Good. In my speeches and conversations about this topic, someone in the audience almost always challenges the countries I’ve offered as the best examples of a particular Good. But the US is one of only two countries (the other being Singapore for Growth)  for which no one has offered a better alternative.  The US is all about Individuality.

America’s history of individuality started early—very early—with the first pilgrims escaping religious persecution in England and in the process escaping their families and friends.  The American Revolution rejected societal hierarchy as a god-given right and cut Americans off from their history and ancestry. Every wave of immigrant since has been willing to leave behind security and all of their societal ties in a bid for greater economic opportunity (Growth) and independence (Individuality). 

In fact, the first time the word “individualism” was used according to the Oxford English dictionary, was when Henry Reeve who was translating de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in 1840 found that there was no good word in English for Toqueville’s French word “individualisme.”  So he basically kept the French one.  Tocqueville’s definition of American individualism was as good a definition of this concept as you are going to find: “a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures and draw apart with his family and friends that he willingly leaves society at large to itself … individualism is of democratic origin.”  (Reeves translation, 1840, vol 3 Bk 11, Ch 2)

Anti-social genes?

It is interesting that word “individualism” was a word to describe the New World almost as if the concept itself was new. But anthropologists agree that individualism has been around a lot longer than societal bonds. Pre-humans weren’t very good a suppressing their individualistic needs – it turns out that that is one of the reasons they were pre-humans. A big part of our being classified as humans is that we learned to form long-term relationships. Sure there are herd animals that work well together and primates seem to bond in small groups as well. But humans are among a handful of life-long-mating, family-based, individual-needs sacrificing species on earth. An ape that thinks he is up to challenging the ape group leader will. Most humans who know they are physically capable of overpowering the current leader of their group choose to submit instead. 

Those who dig up and understand the meaning of bones, tell us that homo habilis made a transition to homo erectus and males and females of the species started to be of about the same skeletal size. Scientists speculate that this physiological change may have signaled a change in social structure as well and many of them believe this is about when our human ancestors started bonding for something more than pure survival. That was the beginning of human kind. 

Over the following million years, we have built and lived in communities. Many of the most frightening stories of lore have been about individuals (or even small groups of individuals) who venture off alone from the community onto the ocean or into the woods. To be where people were not was a truly frightening specter to most humans. During our long human history, biologists would argue that natural selection has favored those who have been the most domesticated. The genetic lots of the village daredevil and the village couch potato (or its ancient equivalent) would have been quite different.   The argument goes that the seafaring adventurer of a teenager might never have had the chance to procreate; meanwhile the homebody teen would have been more likely to produce a passel of kids. (Now we know this is not entirely true because the ne’er-do-well sailor might have impregnated a different woman every day while the faithful husband would only get a chance at procreating every nine months. But the safety-conscious man would, on average, have lived longer. And he would have provided for his children – unlike the scallywag.)

Studies on animals show that if you’re selecting for domesticity, you can create a whole society of domestics in a relatively short number of iterations. Dmitri Belyaev started an experiment with 100 female and 30 male wild silver foxes. He selected for traits of docility and in a surprisingly short period of time – just thirty-five generations – most of the foxes were behaving just like dogs. These wild, fierce, mean animals became “lap foxes.”

Even with all our bonding tendencies, in every community of people there were always those who didn’t quite fit in – the loners, the weird, the strange, or even the mentally ill. These people didn’t have any lower sex drive than the socialites did and, chances are that throughout human history, they probably interbred often with others of their ilk, keeping a strain of anti-social, individualistic behavior alive and well in all communities. 

Escapees in America

One quick glance at the history of the peopling of the United States and you have to wonder if we didn’t tap pretty deeply into the individualistic gene pool that existed in Europe (and more recently Asia). Those most connected to the familial, communal, or national societies would have been poor candidates for the allure of emigration to the United States of America. Those in any given gene pool with the most individualist tendencies – not afraid to stake a claim to land in the middle of nowhere and cultivate it on their own; hopeful for wealth and a new start to life by traveling alone to work a railroad job or pan for gold – are the gene pool that has created America.

Even our evangelical bent betrays our individualism – we believe that we have the right to talk directly to God and no formal hierarchy of saints or priests should stand in our way.  The religions that have prospered in the last few decades are those without formal structure where the preacher is hired or fired by a congregation wanting to hear entertaining messages of hope, prosperity, and individual success.

More individualistic over time

Even though we had to have been pretty individualist to come to the American Colonies in the first place, the need to severe ties wasn’t felt universally among the colonists. John Adams famously figured that at least one-third of colonists were opposed to the revolution. Historian Robert Calhoon estimates that about 40 to 45 percent of the white populace would have been actively supporting the Patriots. (Robert M. Calhoon, in ‘A companion to the American Revolution’, (2000); p 235.) The black slave population would have almost universally opposed the war enticed by emerging British policy to free all slaves. And it wasn’t just fear of losing to the Brits that drove the loyalists, Robert R. Palmer estimates that about sixty thousand people emigrated after the war; a larger proportion of newly minted Americans left the country than the proportion that emigrated during and following the bloody French Revolution.

There is a pretty good argument that we’ve become even more individualist over time than we were at the time that the country was born. Our constitutional amendments have, for the most part, offered more individual rights than removal those rights. The most important removal of rights, the Eighteenth Amendment which prohibited alcohol, was overturned just 13 years after it was passed.  Individual rights were accorded blacks and women by these amendments. Even more electoral power was accorded to all individuals by the 17th Amendment which made a popular vote the mechanism by which Senators would be sent to Washington (stripping the power of state legislatures to determine their senators). 

Not uniform

This is not to say that all Americans are individualists. This is obviously a big range. And we’ve seen that. In fact if we look at the survey we conducted in Japan and in the US, you’ll find that only 8% of Americans claim that Individuality is the Greatest Good (38% say Life and 27% say Belief).  But remember that this is not about individual priorities, although I think that eventually those priorities do have a huge impact on governmental decision. If a few people die as the result of a government policy, that policy will be changed, and usually rather quickly. If anything threatens to interfere with someone’s right to worship, government will work to preserve that right as well. My argument here is not that Life and Belief aren’t important governmental decision criterion, but that Individuality may be even more important in American national decision-making. 

Let me give you an example. We as Americans will gladly send our military into other countries to defend individual freedoms – we seem willing to sacrifice Life for the preservation of Individual rights. It is the same with Belief. Religion or a particular ethical standard is important to many of us individually. But it is the right to worship that is key to government decision-making. We protect an individual’s right to worship as one chooses – even if those individual beliefs come into conflict with each other.

One place where the normally strong trend toward Individuality seems to break down a bit in the US is in large urban areas – at least in voting patterns. Those who live in large cities in the US are the most likely to vote for the most liberal agenda. Perhaps this is because of their physical proximity to other people – they rub shoulders with the less fortunate every day; they see the negative impact on their own lives when others are struggling. 

In an international context

So how does the US compare to other countries in the world on individuality? Legal scholar Barbara Bennet Woodhouse points out that the US cultural and legal system which prioritizes individuality at the top may be responsible for the fact that the US is the only nation in the world not to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Individualism and Early Childhood in theU.S.: How Culture and Tradition HaveImpeded Evidence-Based Reforms” Journal of Korean Law I Vol. 8, 135-16o, December 2008)The US government is the only one in the world that sees this law not as a commitment by the government to assist and support children, but rather as government interference into an individual’s right to raise a child as he or she sees fit.  And the results of this emphasis on the individual responsibility lead to some sad consequences for those not able to fend for themselves. In a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Innocenti Research Centre study in 2005, the US had a higher percentage of kids living in poverty (21.9%) than all but one (Mexico) of the twenty-six OECD countries in the study.

But at the same time, the world has become more open to the notion of American one-person-one-vote democracy. In 1900, not a single country in the world had universal suffrage. By 1950 there were twenty-two countries with universal voting rights. By 2010, eighty-nine countries in the world (making up almost half of the world’s population) are real democracies. In other words, over the last 110 years, nations around the word have placed Individuality as an increasingly high priority in their decision-making process.

Real crises and Individuality

For most of the nations in the world, the strong pull of Relationships has been slowly matched (or at least balanced) by a focus on Individuality. But in a place like the United States where the founding ideals were, from the beginning, so much about Individuality, how do you create a society that actually binds people together? 

It is interesting that Herbert Hoover made the term “rugged individualism” famous in 1928, shortly before he won the election and shortly before the US plunged into its worst economic crisis:

“We were challenged with a … choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas would have meant the destruction of self-government through centralization … [and] the undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.”(Victorious Campaign Speech of October 22, 1928,

Americans voted for this point of view during the pre-crisis “happy days,” but Hoover’s individualistic policies didn’t help bring America out of the depression and some say they even hurt.  After the next election, Franklin Roosevelt introduced, perhaps, the least individualistic set of policies in US history. 

The times when we, as a nation, have been willing to pull together have been moments of national tragedy or crisis. The Revolutionary War was the start of it all – a time when individuals agreed with each other (for the most part – although the biggest Constitutional battles through our history have been over issues that our Founding Fathers could not agree on themselves) to separate themselves from a much bigger and more powerful society. All American legislation which has been meant to support the weaker (and less well off) among us has been passed when we were all feeling vulnerable – the Depression, World War II, the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination and 9-11. At times like these, even the most individualistic among us have given up some “rights” in the hope that someone would come to our rescue and protect us – we hoped that somehow the nation could make things better.

But if it isn’t a real crisis…

In the wake of new laws on welfare, social security, civil rights legislation, gender equality, our society actually did get stronger. Our willingness to work together as a nation and as communities (whole communities, not just the people who looked alike), created an era of growth and growing equality in the US. From the 1920s to the 1970s, inequality in wages and living standards in our country dipped; we became more alike than different – geographically, racially, sexually, and economically.   

But with the crises gone, we naturally revert rather quickly to our individualistic ways.  We want the nation – big brother – out of our way. This tendency is exacerbated by economic discomfort (which hasn’t quite turned into crisis) for most of us in the country.  As overall economic growth rates have slumped in the US, we want to hold on to what we have. We are individualists after all. Our culture (and possibly even our genes) predisposes us to move farther away from each other, put up fences, break out the guns, and ardently protect what we have. 

But most of our country is God’s land of Individualism. And if history is any guide, it will remain that way until the next crisis makes us realize how important we really are to each other.