How can a country composed of individualists be a nation?

November 03, 2010 4 min read

As I’ve been studying the Eight Great Goods for more than a year now, I’ve discovered that not only are there examples of individuals around the world who put each of these eight great goods at the top of their personal lists of priorities in making a decision, but there are good national exemplars of each of the Goods. 

A nation’s greatest Good

A nation’s culture is, of course, a major factor in understanding which of the Greatest Goods a country adopts as its key decision-making factor, but for the purposes of classifying countries, I tried to look at the historical behaviors of the national governments: what are the laws and decision-making patterns. 

It is hard to tease apart culture and government in most places. It is a very chicken and egg distinction; a little like the Church and State division that the US Constitution requires. The Founding Fathers, while trying to separate the two, included regular references to God in their state building documents, mottos, and imagery. Culturally, these men were church-going, Bible reading folk. So a lot of their culture found its way into the government that they were designing. But they were logically trying to draw a distinction. They wanted the laws – the decision-making systems – of the country to be separate from that Christian culture. But culture definitely defines the laws. And each country in the world has its own decision-making pattern which corresponds to their (usually) unconscious prioritization of the Eight Great Goods. 

My nominees for countries which exemplify each of the Goods are: Life (Japan); Stability (China); Growth (Singapore); Joy (Bhutan); Society (Switzerland); Fairness (Norway); Belief (Saudi Arabia); and Individuality (US). Some people question the first seven on the list. I’ve never had anyone issue a single challenge to the last one; the US is the epitome of Individuality.

America’s history of individuality started 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 immigrants since has been willing to leave behind their security and all of their societal ties in a bid for great economic opportunity (Growth) and independence (Individuality). 

Anti-social genes?

From a gene pool perspective, you have to wonder if America has not been selecting for the most individualistic people in the world for centuries now.   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.

So how do you form a society – a nation – from such a group of individualists? The times when we, as a nation, have been willing to pull together have been in 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.

Individuality in a slow economy

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 a 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 avidly protect what we have. 

The one place where this trend is less obvious is in the urban areas of our country. It is perhaps not surprising that those who live in large cities in the US are the most likely to vote for the most liberal agenda – they rub shoulders with the less fortunate every day; they see the negative impact on their own lives when others are struggling. 

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.