Individualism and the Entitlement State

A recent edition of the Wall Street Journal asked the timely question, “Are Entitlements Corrupting Us?” Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute argued ‘yes,’ making his case by laying out numerous statistics showing the steep rise in the number of American households accepting some form of government assistance or subsidy.

Eberstadt’s argument goes like this: ‘Individualism’ characterizes Americans; We cannot escape corruption if most of us are taking government assistance; and Americans are approaching the point where most are taking government assistance. Therefore, entitlements are corrupting ‘us’ Americans.

Eberstadt uses the term ‘individualism’ only once in his article, to describe the kind of rugged self-reliance that Tocqueville observed in 19th century America. The problem with this argument is that it fails to consider the possibility that the individualism Eberstadt says entitlements are corrupting, may itself be responsible for the rise of entitlements.

Let’s go back to how Alexis de Tocqueville understood individualism. The problem with Eberstadt’s application is that it fails to take into account Tocqueville’s suspicions about the limitations and dangers of individualism. These suspicions are rooted in his family and French ancestry.

Tocqueville’s aristocratic family lived in fear of the guillotine throughout the revolutionary era. The French Revolution was the great Western social experiment that sought unspoiled, pure equality. Aristocrats and royalty, seen as expressions of hierarchy, class, and social order, were hunted down and executed in order to achieve this equality.

With this leveling, two things happened: first, each individual was given the ability to completely recreate himself, without reference to God, creed, community, history and even human nature. Because the self no longer has the categories of definition that it used to have, it must (or is free to) create its own from scratch. To define oneself in this way is individualism unfettered, unable or unwilling to recognize its limits.

Second, the quest for equality in France, and the rise of individualism that came with it, ironically created a vacuum that was filled by despotism. The vacuum brought about by radical equality was recently and vividly demonstrated in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here a group fought for the same kind of radical equality sought in the French Revolution, though they didn’t have the power to carry out their ideas as Robespierre did.

What was the result? News reports of looting, robberies and rapes dotted the news wire toward the end of its time in New York City. Wealthy celebrities (who could be considered part of the 1%) capitalized on the publicity of appearing in solidarity with the protestors. The Occupy movement was a demonstration of radical equality allowing each person to recreate himself or herself however they wished. In the vacuum that followed, what really mattered was who was stronger, and who was smarter.

An awareness of the dark side of individualism seems to be missing from Eberstadt’s analysis, as he doesn’t seem to consider that an unrestrained individualism may be behind the rise of the number of ‘takers’ in America.

How does radical individualism increase entitlements? Wilfred M. McClay in his entry on ‘individualism’ in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia observes:

“As Tocqueville well understood, individualism is itself the product of a particular form of socialization. Radical centralization and radical individualism go hand in hand, precisely because centralization gradually eliminates the functional need for individuals to understand and comport themselves as social creatures, accountable to one another and nourished by and embedded in their proximate social contexts.”

Entitlements are the currency of centralization, but are the rising entitlements Eberstadt refers to also eliminating “the functional need for individuals to understand and comport themselves as social creatures”? Yes.

Social Security and Medicare eliminate the functional need for the younger generation to prepare to care for the older generation. Medicaid and other forms of welfare provide one with an easy and inferior answer to the question, “How should I relate to the poor family living next door to me?” These entitlements take away the need to “understand and comport” ourselves in our social context, which includes the poor and the elderly. In other words, centralization and the entitlements that come with it, allow the individualist to be unchained from the limits of rootedness, family, communal context, and the poor.

So, if a heavy dose of rugged individualism isn’t the antidote we seek, what is? First, we need to find and shore up the common ground between the libertarian and traditional critiques of modern America. Both sides see the need to fight centralization, but it takes special care to make certain that they aren’t cannibalizing each other.

Second, the way forward will require solutions that are not political. Political solutions have a ceiling on what they can achieve. Many Alaskans have a deep difficulty understanding anything that is not practically political, but in order to have a Reagan in politics, you must first have a revival of ideas.

While the narrative that Eberstadt tells about entitlements in America is disturbing, they grant us the opportunity to discover again who we are as Americans, and the ideas that animate the history of our nation and state.

Don’t let the opportunity go to waste.

Jeremy Thompson writes for the Alaska Policy Forum, a free-market think tank focused on public policy in Alaska.