By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The American (also Western) Curse: Individualism

Not just individualism, but individualism out of control. We could define it as the attitude that I can do whatever I want. Period. And I don't even have to consider the ripple effects on others now and in the distant future.

So, a common scenario: the promiscuous person who finds that the respect, devotion, admiration, and commitment of a significant other is nowhere to be found years or decades later. That's just one example of a hyperindividualism that tells us: it's all a free lunch.

We also see this hyperindividualism today when a fanatical subset of Tea Party ideologues paralyzes the U.S. government. I had to hear the apparently eternally present George Will (probably with bow-tie) pontificating on the radio that the government deadlock was (let me pompously clear my throat and tilt my head upward) "Madisonian." Each branch of government has to maximize its power. More power to the fanatics in the House for doing so, according to Will.

Oh really. The impressive "Madisonian" label does not work as a magic charm or talisman to cloud the reality. The reality is that any constitutional system needs the virtue of prudence and the virtue of self-control and self-restraint in order to advance the common good. Abusing constitutional prerogatives undermines the constitution and the society that the constitution serves.

It is funny to see a so-called conservative ignore the obvious necessity of a virtue ethics on the part of those claiming to lead a country. But, again, it is the American curse of hyperindividualism: our own special Achilles' heel. Do whatever you can do and get away with--don't think of the costs down the road or on others. Hence, hyperindividualism is just another word for egotism and selfishness.

Let's consider a conservative source quoting Madison himself:

James Madison reflected this milieu [virtue ethics] in Federalist 57: “[t]he aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first, to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

Source link.

Without virtuous and prudential restraint, self-control, and moderation, no constitution can endure. And I think Madison, in an era that revered the golden ethical mean of Aristotle, would have agreed. The lesson was clearly evident in the Civil War. The system collapsed and was able to rise again only after the bloodiest war in U.S. history because slavery fanatics were willing to sacrifice the union.

Yes, our constitutional system did collapse back in the time of Lincoln. The union victory restored it. Process, however theoretically elegant on paper, won't survive without prudence, self-restraint, and the eschewing of fanaticism. No constitutional system works without the prudence of its participants. There is no magic in the misleading use of the "Madisonian" label--even with a bow-tie.

(Image in public domain)