The Death of Individualism.

April 9, 2014

Last week, following a lunchtime run, I sauntered into the locker room. Intent on a quick shower and a return to the office.
Beside me, a grossly obese gentleman was changing from his workout gear while conducting a phone conversation. He was five foot ten. Weiged north of 300 pounds. Could not have been over 35 years old. But, he was in the gym. A good sign.
"No, I couldn't be there this morning," he said. "I had that worker's comp meeting. Yea, I think it went well. You know how it works -- you never know till you get that letter. Anyways, I'll see you tonight. What time's the game start?"
With that, he wrapped up his call.
Next day, he was back. Lifting weights. He was agile for a man that size. I considered the previous day's phone conversation. Maybe he'd been hurt on the job. Unable to work. Required worker's compensation benefits to make ends meet. Still, But for his weight, he appeared perfectly fine. Short of asking him, I realized I'd never truly understand the story.
But, I was left with an impression. Perhaps an incorrect impression based upon misguided assumptions. But, here was a young guy, overweight, yet healthy enough to work out two days in a row. Having attempted to arrange for worker's comp, he managed to maintain a social life -- having made plans to watch or attend a game with a friend, the previous evening.
Nothing out of the ordinary here. No laws broken. Evil perpetrated. No cosmic injustices flashing red. Still, I could not shake the indelible impression left by this man's conflicting actions.
Would he receive his worker's comp benefit? For how long? Would it leave him less marketable to future employers? How would it impact his motivation and ambition? Where would he be in ten years?
Were there extenuating circumstances of which I'm unaware? Very likely. Yet, as of Q4 2011, more than 49 percent of the U.S. population received benefits from the U.S. government. Further, 70 percent of U.S. families receive more from the U.S. government than they pay in taxes. Most of those beneficiaries consist of the elderly, disabled and desperate. But not all of them. Some of them were like this young man. Seemingly capable.
Is the extended provision of government assistance to such a wide swath of the population sustainable? As unnerving as the financial ramifications may be, what about the impact on our national psyche? That is, what type of motivational course correction is required to return the spirit of this nation to that which made it special in the first place?
Praxeology is the "study of human action." Unlike most of the social sciences, praxeology recognizes humanity as a unified, organic whole. Not a collection of disparate parts.
There is psychology. Sociology. Biology. Kinesiology. Economics. History. Ethics. Art. Cultural anthropology. Military affairs. Politics. Religion. Business. And the law. Integrate them together, sprinkle them atop any societal context you care to consider, and you have praxeology.
Praxeology assumes there are no individual subsets to the human endeavor. There is human behavior. Period. Each of these disciplines, in terms of their central focus on human behaviors, impacts and is impacted by the others. For good or bad. Right or wrong.
If so many Americans increasingly rely on ever-larger handouts, what will be the impact on American culture? Not the financial affects, but those psychological? Are we not witnessing an inversion of the very traits that first enabled America?
Our ancestors, having arrived in America, waged war against a mighty empire. Why? Because the pound of flesh being extracted by England was deemed to be too much in light of what was being received. The denizens of a fledgling nation determined that they could provide themselves with that which England was providing. And forgo the massive transfer payments to the crown.
Victorious, they wrote a beautiful constitution. Crossed a savage and deadly frontier with nothing but fortitude and covered wagons. They created, by their minds and hands, new cities. Inventions. Economies. Locomotives. Wheat fields. Commerce. Legal systems. And astonishing wealth.
These early Americans were restless. Ambitious. Enterprising. They realized that there was little they could not accomplish. They only required the freedom to do so. To work towards their individual and collective destinies.
We will provide for our own security, they said. Just let us be free.
This new philosophy of individualism stood in complete contrast to the beliefs of Europe. There, men subordinated themselves to monarchies and feudal lords. In return, they were given security.
The new American philosophy declared that men were their own rulers. Responsible for their own lives. Accountable to their families and each other. These individuals, working together when expedient, could overcome any obstacle.
This philosophy gave birth to a nation that would become, perhaps, the greatest to ever have existed. It became a force for good. And changed the world. For a century and a half, Americans adhered to individualism as a baby does his mother. Accordingly, American prosperity grew to unimaginable heights.
Sometime around the 1930s, however, something changed. Social progressivism began straining to co-opt a growing litany of roles and responsibilities that had once been the purview of the individual, families and communities.
Resultantly, bureaucracies grew larger. Individuals were relegated to a secondary or tertiary role. As a burgeoning welfare state began to care for a growing swath of an expanding population, the spirit of individualism faded.
The following passage has been attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler and well as Alexis de Tocqeville. Regardless, it aptly sums up the difficulties inherent to democracy:
"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.
The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage."
That, my friends, is a downward spiral.
Relax. I'm not insinuating the end of America. I analogize my concern to that a doctor might show for a patient who's become too comfortable with prescription pain killers.
In light of the womb-to-grave security blanket provided by an ever-growing Federal bureaucracy, one cannot help but consider the long-term societal ramifications.
Americans have gone from violently rejecting the state-provided security of the English monarchy, to wrapping themselves in the state-provided security of the Federal government. Financial assistance. Housing assistance. Government food programs. Medicare. Medicaid. Social security. And now, the Affordable Care Act.
At what point does a child, devoid of responsibility, begin to incur a loss of ambition, accountability, drive and determination?
Such government assistance programs were intended for the elderly, indigent, mentally ill and handicapped. Today, we have thirty-year old men collecting unemployment insurance for a year.
Opponents of such an outlook will explain that, while individualism worked well in a frontier society, it cannot be effective in a modern, technological society. That a nation as advanced and as wealthy as ours cannot possibly let its people suffer.
While such rhetoric wins votes, it stands in direct opposition to the facts. A quick summation of the nation's current debt and unfunded liabilities amounts to $61.5 trillion. That's $193,317 owed per citizen. $758,177 owed per family. Meanwhile, the average family savings amounts to $5,254.
Alarmingly, the sheer magnitude of our mounting liabilities does not represent the scariest part of this tale. Worse is our simultaneously diminishing zest for entrepreneurialism and hard work
At this pace, individualism, and all of its subsidiary benefits, will be snuffed out within a couple generations. At which point we'll be left with a citizenry that has never existed outside of the government's cradle-to-grave security system.
One needn't be a praxeologist to understand that a tight-rope walker who never plies his trade without a safety net will never be as diligent, hard working and focused as one who does. Likewise, how can America's children ever understand accomplishment if they are forever spared the opportunity to exist without a safety net?
At some point we will reach a nexus. When the well being of the collective will compromise the future of the nation. Then, historians will write the final chapter on America's rise and fall.

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