Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Steve Randy Waldman — Ersatz individualism makes the American collective strong

Here’s a statement that I don’t think will be too contentious, across the ideological spectrum:
"The American way is to draw sharp distinctions between winners and losers, in order to encourage people to hustle." ...
But, in the lingo of economics, consider the “social welfare function” embedded in this story. The claim is emphatically not that this system maximizes some measure of aggregate utility that could be decomposed to a sum of individual welfares. On the contrary, it celebrates as necessary large costs in individual welfare for the sake of impersonal characteristics of the aggregate: “prosperity”, or “strength”. It is an entirely collectivist justification for policies that are deeplyharmful at an individual level, if you take seriously at all the idea of diminishing marginal utility. The individualist approach to maximizing welfare would be to redistribute. If we (contentiously but commonly) assume people share comparable utility functions, aggregate utility is maximized by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. At least in a methodological sense, it is socialists who are the individualists, attending to the sum of individual welfares, while unsympathetic capitalists rely upon collectivism to justify their good fortune and the policy apparatus that magnifies and sustains it.
As SRW observes, there is a divergence on the right between Libertarians and conservatives on this matter. Libertarians deny any collective influence, whereas the most important factor for conservatives is the strength of the nation, especially relative to other nations. Conservatism pretends to be liberal, being based on individualism, but it is inherently Tory, holding that political and economic strength arises from rule by the best for the good of the nation, and not necessarily the people. What's good for America is not necessarily good for all or even most Americans.

This post is sure to spark an interesting philosophical and historical discussion over there. I suggest reading de Tocqueville's chapter on enlightened self-interest along with it: How The Americans Combat Individualism By The Principle Of Self-Interest Rightly Understood, Democracy in America, Chapter VIII.

Ersatz individualism makes the American collective strong
Steve Randy Waldman

1 comment:

Detroit Dan said...

I hope this is better than some recent Waldmann posts. He seems to have a weak spot for the monetarist nonsense...