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Individualism and the Common Good are Not Incompatible

April 21, 2018

In thinking about the policies advocated by today’s libertarian leadership of the GOP, it is difficult to see any effort being made to advocate for the common good. Indeed, many GOP members think that any philosophy whatsoever that calls for the “common good” is either naive or somehow automatically anti-capitalist. Several week ago Arthur Camins wrote an excellent blog post titled “If Not Now, When?” explaining how individualism and the common good can coexist. He opens with a definition of “the common good” and the GOP’s definition of “individualism”:

Without one another we are diminished. The more we have others around us, the stronger we can become. That is the idea of the common good.

It’s not a uniquely American idea, but it is one with which many of us identify.

Republicans in Congress have a different idea. It applies to guns, health care, retirement, and education.

Their value is a strain of individualism that stands in opposition to the common good.   Their strategies are: Promote fear and undermine public confidence in government as a vehicle to keep people safe. The goal is the further enrichment of the already privileged.

After establishing that the GOP’s definition of individualism is the opposite of “the common good”, he proceeds to offer examples of legislation proposed by the GOP that buttress his assertions, he asserts that the Democrats have been reluctant to appeal to the common good in their resistance to the direction the GOP has headed our country, mirroring arguments advanced on several occasions in this blog.

Centrist Democrats, acceding to conservative framing, have been loath to appeal to common good values, the obligation to pay taxes, or defend government as a common good institution. Too many­– in the Clinton years– accepted the premise that poverty is an individual failing and supported “Ending Welfare as we know it.” Too many–in the Obama years– accepted the Republican framing of the failure of democratically-governed public schools and supported individualistic solutions such as charter schools. Too many– before Bernie Sanders’s advocacy for Medicare for all– abdicated and supported the Affordable Care Act’s foundation in the private insurance market.

Camins then poses a question from Rabbi Hillel from hundreds of years ago:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” 

Camins concludes that the GOP today views everything through a zero-sum game lens, which means others can gain only if each person is asked to make a sacrifice– in effect to compromise their individuality. But Camins believes the issue of individualism can be reframed, and by doing so progressive wing of the Democratic party can rekindle the collaborative spirit that at one time defined our country. He concludes with this:

Progressives, need not shame individualism, but rather reframe it. That is, we become our best selves through others. We can only become our best selves when we are all safe, healthy, well-fed, and well-housed. We can only learn to be our best selves when we are educated with the benefits of diversity and equity. Hopeful, but hard.

If not now, when?

If not now, never. So, organize.

Hopefully, yesterday’s gathering was another step along the path toward restoring the common good.


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