Not going to bury the lead here, there’s nothing to build up to, the individualist credo that seems to be constantly gaining currency in our society is one of the most wrong-headed, misguided philosophies to ever claim that title. There have been few schools of thought to gain as much traction with the public while at the same time being so utterly worthless as an ethical system, both in moral and practical terms, and it is quite frankly astonishing to me how many people have bought into this bald-faced lie. It is a philosophy that only ever could have gained popularity in this time and place, for the simple reason that any other place or time would have seen it for the lunacy it is and rejected it immediately. The idea that we are all (or should all be) autonomous individuals with nothing but a mercantile connection to the people around is stupid at least, and sociopathic at worst, so why does anyone believe it at all? To put it simply, because it appeals to the selfish jerk in all of us by telling us that it’s OK to be a selfish jerk, in fact it’s encouraged. Of course, they don’t flat-out say you’re a selfish jerk; the trick is to point out what selfish jerks other people are in order to make it all seem justified. You’re not being a prick, you’re looking out for your own interests in a world full of people looking to take what’s yours, and you’re the good guy here. It’s all those spoiled, entitled jerks out there who are trying to live off your hard work and freeload their way through life, they’re the bad guys who need to be cut off so that society has the money to run the programs you want to keep running, right? You’ve worked hard your whole life, you earned everything you have, and nothing was handed to you. You’re a self-made man who has already given more than enough to the bums and wastrels out there leeching off the government, off your tax dollars, it’s time for you to start looking out for old #1 and let the hobos take care of themselves for a change.
Of course, in any sane society, such nonsense would be laughed out of the room as comically misguided, but unfortunately we’re not living in a sane society these days. Even though the self-made man is a creature of myth, for some people he is not only an ideal to strive towards, but at present, lived reality in themselves. They really can’t see that practically nothing of who they are is purely self-directed; they honestly believe that they are their own creators and creations at the same time. Tell them that their entire primary and secondary educations were paid for by someone else, they’ll dismiss that as irrelevant, because who we are is determined by how we thrive in the adult world, not in the little fishbowl of elementary and high school. Tell them that their post-secondary education was also paid for at least in some (likely large) part by others, and they’ll give you a similar answer. Ask them how many jobs they’ve gotten without relying on friends and family members to provide a network they could take advantage of, and that’s just using the resources available to you. Roads and other infrastructure to get to those jobs that other people referred them to and still other people educated them in preparation for, and still other people paid the teachers who educated them once their parents spent 4-5 years feeding, changing, clothing and potty training them? All paid for by those hard-earned tax dollars that the self-made rugged individualists are trying to protect from the grasping masses.
In the past, this kind of thinking could never have taken root, because you would have seen immediately that you absolutely depend on other people for your own survival and personal thriving. What’s that you say? You don’t need other people to help you, you can do it all on your own? OK then, good luck with shoeing your own horse, growing your own crops, raising your own barn and any of a million other tasks that require any number of other people to get done. I’m sure you’ll do just fine, because unlike everyone else, you are an island, aren’t you? The difference between then and now is that while all the people who helped you with your survival needs were right there in your face, today there’s a layer of technology separating you from everyone else. There really are people out there who make their living on a computer, order everything online, and never need to depend on another physically present person for years at a time. There really are people out there who depend on money for every human interaction they experience; it’s a viable way of living your life, if techno-hermit is the life you want for yourself. However, all this does is mask reality, not change its nature. On the other end of your computer, there is a real, flesh and blood human being interacting with you and delivering the things you require to get by. And let’s not forget all the people involved in keeping your computer turned on and connected to the internet 24/7, they’re actual people too. Oh, and the people who pay you for whatever goods or service it is you provide in your techno-hermitage, you sort of depend on them coming to you and giving you money for what is very likely a luxury item that could only have value in a society with sufficient advancement. Just because you don’t see the people giving you what you need doesn’t mean they aren’t there and you’re some kind of Randian superman who can live on an isolated island with all the other supermen who have no idea how to plant a garden or mend a torn pair of pants.
So here’s the reality of our situation: We all depend constantly upon the continued goodwill and cooperation of our fellow citizens, wherever we happen to live. Collectivism isn’t some horrible plot to rob from the rich and give to the poor (Remember when Robin Hood was considered a hero for doing that very thing?), it is our present, lived reality, whether we recognize it or not. “No man is an island,” isn’t just a nice bit of poetry, it is a basic fact of life; nobody gets anywhere on their own, and the sooner we all come back to that truth, the better off we all will be. Think about it, if NASA were to run its space program with the belief that the world is perched on the shoulders of four elephants that are standing on the back of a giant turtle, how successful do you think they would be in getting someone to Mars? People who run their lives on a false premise at the core of their belief system rarely do very well once reality comes around and asserts itself. Should it really come to a shock to us that the economy is in the toilet if government policy and corporate governance has been guided by such a deeply flawed idea? Want an explanation for why people are out in the streets protesting these days? It’s because they see the lie for what it is and they’re tired of hearing it preached at them day and night. It’s because they see the iceberg ahead and they want to steer us all away from it before there’s a disaster we can’t recover from. It’s because they know that we all depend on each other to get by in this world, and they’re speaking out against the lunatics trying to take control of their asylum.