Individualism – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The concept of freedom is that individuals be allowed to do whatever they want. Over the past two hundred years individualism and capitalism rose together. In last three decades of the 20th century, people expressed their individuality through exercising choice. Individualism supports self-interest in business organizations, and is responsible for many of the possibilities available to society. Capitalism’s merit has been the goods it has been able to deliver. Each generation could count on seeing its children enjoy a host of new products. The luxuries of one generation became the necessities of the next.

It is necessary to strike a balance a balance between the ethics of the individual and the ethics of common good. Common good is associated with such things as environmental pollution, public education and the safety net for the poor. Something counts as a common good only to the extent that it is a good to which all have access. This gave economic inequality its justification – as the best chance for advancing the living conditions of all, but is no longer functioning. In the case of individualism its rewards are not spread evenly throughout society.  No longer can social inequalities be justified on the grounds that the poor will one day have what the rich now enjoy.

Bad individualism creates negative influences and is associated with underemployment and unemployment, a shrinking middle class and increasing wage gap between the rich and the poor. Individualism and self-interest have been accompanied by an unhinging of social norms and religious obligations needed as a basis for social cooperation. Individualism reinforces the person who thinks that he should not have to contribute to the community’s common good, but should be left free to pursue their own personal ends. More and more people competing in the system are falling behind their start point, and will never exceed their parent’s (financial) success. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid become increasingly frustrated with the growing realization that the path to their advance has been substantially blocked by the advantages enjoyed by the already prosperous.  (Jack Buchanin) The Occupy Wall Street protesters identified the middle class as being taken advantage of by the financial system.

The focus on individualism and self-centeredness in society has led to the increase in narcissism while the sense of entitlement became pervasive. Another aspect of self-centeredness is self-tolerance. Such individuals learn to tolerate their errors and personal flaws and come to accept themselves as okay. They feel justified in asserting themselves, defending their perceived rights, believe rules do not apply to them, lack respect for authority, and habitually lie to people. It is impossible to distinguish pathological narcissists from self-confident, self-promoting, highly individualistic individuals.

An energy trading company called Enron, established in 1985, developed a unique hiring format. They brought in a stream of the best college MBA graduates they could find, who became star performers, who did whatever they wanted. This created a climate for extreme individualism and narcissism. Narcissists typically make judgements with greater confidence than other people, and the decisions are rendered with such conviction that narcissists become disproportionately more influential in group situations. Enron became a narcissistic company in which workers did not need to acknowledge their faults and deception, and a declining sense of responsibility became a major part of the culture.

The culture of extreme individualism ushered in the narcissism influencing decision-making and accountability today. With narcissism, such a person lacks empathy and does not recognize boundaries: personal, corporate or legal. The world viewed from an emotional rather than a rational perspective allows personal feelings to override the distinction between right and wrong. Following three decades of the cult of self-esteem, individuals in the financial services industry, with self-tolerance and a sense of entitlement, leveraged the market and plunged the world into economic chaos. This is an example of the ugly side of individualism.

It is necessary to understand that both good individualism that is responsible for many of the possibilities available to society and bad individualism which contributed greatly to the instability in opportunities today, exist. In the 18th century, with the establishment of the  Copernican theory of the Earth rotating around the sun, the individual was placed at the center of the universe. Individualism was established as a Western value during the Enlightenment. By the last quarter of the 20th century, individualism, happiness, and capitalism were part of the core values of Western culture. The culture of extreme individualism is  associated with reduced of opportunities for many, and is linked to the inequality and growing income gap between the very wealthy and the rest of society that has occurred in North America over the last 35 years.

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