Individual and Collective Good

This post is a response to a recent post of mine.

Status Anxiety

Basically, I’m very cynical.  I don’t believe American society is genuinely a meritocracy.  Yes, sometimes people manage to escape their circumstances, but these are few and far between (and it should be noted that statistics show a person is more likely to escape their lowly circumstances if they’re a white male from an industrialized nation).  Anyways, the exception proves the rule.  I am cynical, but from my perspective I’m just being realistic for I’m basing my opinion on the known facts. 

On the other hand, I don’t believe US politics are even genuinely democratic.  I agree with the analysis of the evidence that shows the voting process has been manipulated in the past.  Plus, I just don’t think a two-party system is enough free choice to create a democracy, especially considering both major parties have many ties to big business. 

I go by the advice of someone who was in a Nazi concentration camp.  To paraphrase, “If they give me two choices, I always pick the third.”  The context of that statement is that the Nazis would offer two lines in order to create a false sense that choice mattered.  People would be too distracted by the illusion of choice that they wouldn’t riot.

Cynicism and realism aside, that isn’t the reason I’m writing this.  I was listening to Iowa Public Radio (public radio being a fitting format for the subject of this post) last night at work as I usually do and there were two interviews.

The first interview was about a guy, with the help of a former drug dealer, who started an organization to offer work to troubled youth.  He had an interesting way of going about it.  They make and sell their own ice-cream and so it’s run like a normal business.  The reason for this is because he thinks charity was the wrong way of trying to help people and he wants the youth to work hard to earn what they get.  He wanted the youth and the community to be both invested in and inspired by this organization.  So, the youth employees have a share in the business and they are selling shares of the business to people in the community.

What intrigued me is that on the surface it seems to fit the meritocracy paradigm, but there is an important difference.  He doesn’t just want to help individuals.  He wants to help the entire community.  It’s ineffective trying to help an individual if there isn’t a community there to support the individual.  That is the failing of the enlightened selfishness of the mainstream conception of meritocracy.  In the real world, no one earns anything all on their own.  An individual only ever succeeds to the degree that he is a part of a successful social support system (whether friends, family, school, or community).  This is why most wealthy people were raised by wealthy parents in wealthy communities and went to wealthy schools with wealthy peers.  This is why most poor people were raised by poor parents in poor communities and went to poor schools with poor peers.

The ideal of meritocracy misses out on the larger social reality.  This is why US democracy tries to uphold the ideal of meritocratic individualism through socialist programs.  In theory, public schools are supposed to help level the playing field.  They do to an extent, but only very marginally.  The public schools in the wealthy communities attract the best teachers.  Besides, most wealthy kids go to expensive private schools and have private tutors.  There is no level playing field.  A smart, hardworking kid going to a crappy public school in a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden community will be lucky to make it out alive in order to one day become a minimum wage worker who barely makes ends meet.  When the world a kid grows up in is filled with suffering and desperation, it’s hard for that kid to see outside of that situation and actually believe he has many options open to him.

Even so, social progress does happen.  It’s just that progress of the lower socio-economic classes is minute in comparison to the ever-growing wealth and power of the elite.  Also, some argue that the middle class is disappearing and the gap is widening between the rich and poor.  This widening gap, however, is less obvious to those of the older generations who grew up and started careers during a time when the gap was narrowing.  What many don’t realize is the gap narrowed because of the implementation of many progressive ideals.  There is of course Social Security which is one of the most successful programs of the liberal agenda, and it’s always odd that conservatives will attack public healthcare while defending Social Security.  And there are the accomplishments of workers unions: minimum wage, 5 day work week, 8 hr working day, overtime, worker safety, employer-provided health insurance, child labor laws, and on and on; but the workers unions have been losing power for the last half century.

My grandfather on my mom’s side was a factory worker.  If I remember correctly, he didn’t support unions.  He believed in hard work and earning one’s own way, but he didn’t realize that his lifestyle was as nice as it was because of the unions.  The unions benefit even those who are members and even those who oppose unions… heck, the unions even benefit employees of companies that aren’t unionized by way of free market competition.  My grandfather had a decent house in a decent neighborhood.  He raised three kids who all got good public educations and two of his kids went to college.  He bought a new car on a regular basis which was his pride and joy, and the whole family went on yearly vacations.  He retired with plenty of savings and good benefits which has supported my grandmother since he died.  He did work hard, but none of that would’ve been possible without the workers union and other liberal agendas.

My mom was one of the kids who went to college.  A generation before, a woman wouldn’t have had all the opportunities she had.  It was the liberal agenda of woman who had to fight for those rights over a long period of time and at cost of great personal suffering.  First off, she went to a public school which was of course funded publicly (i.e., socialism).  Secondly, she went to a state school that was funded publicly (i.e., socialism).  She has worked her entire life for public schools (i.e., a socialist institution).  And yet she is a conservative.  If conservative policies had been implemented throughout US history, we wouldn’t have such things publicly funded schools, unions, and the civil rights movement.  (BTW my use of conservative and liberal aren’t equated with Republican and Democrat.)  If social conservatives had their way for the last couple of centuries, my mom would be a traditional stay-at-home mother with no personal rights (no right to vote, no right to have a bank account in her name, etc.).

So, why is it so often the same people who are for meritocracy all the while being suspicious of the liberal agenda?  Why do so many working class people attack Obama and the Democrats as socialists all the while it’s the working class that has benefitted the most from socialist democracy?

Let me now discuss the second interview.  Diane Rehm was talking with Roger G. Kennedy about the New Deal. 

Most people know that there were many public works from that time such as the parks that people still enjoy, but the public works included all aspects of society.  There were also many public buildings built by public works projects, and Kennedy was specifically talking about the art created for communities (both large and small) across the country.  Kennedy mentioned a quote: “The work of art is to help to coax the soul of the nation back to life.” 

Artists during the New Deal saw themselves as part of the larger community of the nation rather than as just individuals looking for their own gain.  There was the belief that what individuals did mattered on the collective level and so people were willing to commit themselves to collective goals.  There was this desire to create a collective sense of identity, but this desire included both national identity and local community identity.  The public art that was created during the New Deal was funded by the government, but it was the local community that decided what to create that represented them.  This art is still around today and is still informing people about their sense of collective identity.

Compare that to our society now.  The popular ideal of selfish meritocracy is supported by a belief that government is either a failing institution or entirely outside the realm of the individual.  Instead of a collective sense of identity and collective sense of responsibility, we have class and culture wars being incited by fear-mongering pundits.  Our whole society is built on public works from public roads to military-funded projects such as the early internet.  However, much of the public works projects from the New Deal are now gone or in serious decay.

There is potential for our society to shift back again.  I believe that our society’s ideals often don’t correlate with reality, but there are hints that people are slowly beginning to demand that politicians do more than pay lip-service to these ideals.  According to Strauss and Howe, the Millennial generation are much more socially oriented and are more committed to the collective good.  So, maybe we’ll see new public works in the next few decades that will reinvigorate US culture. 

Furthermore, I think that ideals are good even when we fail them.  There is the idea in psychology about role-playing.  People need to pretend to be something before actually becoming that thing.  As such, Americans are like little children playing at democracy, and maybe one day we will grow up and form an actual democratic society.

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