Most Americans accept without question the founding principles of the United States are ones of rugged individualism. Possibly this is the reason taking care of each other has not been as ardently embraced by a similar number of Americans. There is a common, but erroneous suspicion it is socialist to care about each other through collective action in government. That somehow caring for each other violates the principles of rugged individualism.
In truth, America took off as a global superpower once we really started taking care of the less fortunate in our society. The United States has a complex relationship with socialism because how ever counter-intuitive, it vaulted us to the head of the world order. The nation retains Social Security and other social services for this reason. The recent popularity of the Bernie Sanders campaign illustrates this more complex relationship between Americans and socialism.
Socialism is not the great evil it has been made out to be by moneyed power. Every society has socialism. Just as capitalism is not an ideology, but a property of commerce in a society, socialism is not really an ideology, but a property of all societies. All societies have some flavor of socialism. They have some collective action that they must do together to survive. The military is the most basic of all socialist enterprises.
Nonetheless, America has at its core this idea of rugged individualism being the source of our exceptionalism. The law-of-the-jungle mentality represents a natural aspect of rugged individualism. This certainly appeals to those arguing for austerity as it relates to Social Security, Medicare and other aspects of America’s social safety net. However, taking care of each other may be the most basic and natural trait of humanity. In fact, it is so basic and natural to the human condition that socialism may be encoded into human DNA.
Imagine this scenario, humans are on the plains of Africa a million years ago and different tribes control different waterholes. One tribal leader at one waterhole makes the people of the tribe “pay” in some kind of currency — hunting, or work or whatever the “leader” deems useful — to get a share of water or a share of the hunt. This “strong” leader with some well-chosen allies controls the rest of the tribe. Access to some very basic resources is restricted by the leadership of this hypothetical tribe.
In contrast, at another waterhole and in a different hypothetical tribe the leader implements a different kind of regimen on water access and sharing the spoils of the hunt. In this tribe, basic resources are shared equally among tribal members. For example, access to the water hole is not restricted by tribal leadership. Leadership rewards hard working or especially talented hunters with surplus from the kills, but only after the tribe’s basic needs have been met. In this tribe, leadership operates more in partnership with the regular tribal members. This tribe’s leadership team has determined that access to basic resources makes everyone stronger. The rising tide raises all the boats is how Franklin Delano Roosevelt use to say it.
Now imagine, a lion pride came walking down upon the plain searching for a waterhole. The pride is on the plain occupied by these two hypothetical tribes. The waterhole where the spoils of the hunt were shared more equally — where access to water, for example, is a shared and a protected right by being a part of the tribe — In that tribe, they are all stronger. They all work together. They fight off those lions.
The lions move on to the other waterhole where access to the spoils of the hunt is strictly controlled by leadership. At this waterhole, the members, as a cooperative unit, are weaker. They lack cohesion, since they do not share in the spoils of the hunt or have equal access to water. Their desire to work and fight collectively is weakened. Their basic health is weaker as well. Since access to food and water is rewarded regardless of the basic needs of the individual, their collective health must suffer. This tribe loses to the lions. Their selfish DNA is removed from the human gene pool and the lion pride takes over that water hole! The cooperative tribe survives to pass on its DNA.
As the coronavirus ravages the economy of the United States, the Chinese economy is in expansion. There is no vaccine, but the economy in China, even in Wuhan, is booming. We continue to see a K-shaped recovery, where certain segments of the economy benefit hugely from the pandemic while the society as a whole is being weakened. This is not a sustainable path. If too few have a stake in the economy (waterhole), then social cooperation and cohesion break down causing the society to be easy prey for an outside force (pride of lions).
The reason societies in Southeast Asia are weathering the pandemic better than the West is their mask wearing. It is seen as a necessary inconvenience to protect others and therefore protect themselves. In the United States, we seem to be too selfish to recognize the utility of masks. The cloth-wearing act of protecting one another has become a political statement. We wait for a vaccine to save us from ourselves, while other societies simply protect each other as a matter of course.