A Healthy Dose of Collectivism is in Our Individual Interest
Civilization is a shared effort. Before anyone can even begin to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” someone else had to invent and manufacture the straps
During the summer of the 2012 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama asserted that America was the product of a lot of collective hard work.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires. ~ President Obama, Roanoke, Virginia, July 2012
This lack of deference to the American myth of the rugged individual able to overcome virtually any obstacle through a combination of hard work and perseverance was duly noted by Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney. The key phrase from Obama’s speech used by the GOP in their counterattack was “you didn’t build that.” Romney replied personally, arguing that “What he’s [Obama] saying is that if someone has succeeded, if they built something, he’s saying they didn’t really build it — no, it was the government, it was the government that takes responsibility.”
Well, of course, government research is responsible for a great many of the things that Americans currently enjoy, but that wasn’t really Obama’s point. His reference to government involvement in the creation of the Internet aside, his larger argument was that without a lot of collective effort on the part of countless fellow citizens, all the things we like to think of as our own individual accomplishments wouldn’t be possible.
Barack Obama was hardly the first president to recognize that civilization is a group endeavor for which no single person can take credit. Our individual successes are made possible by these collective exertions. Given Mitt Romney had made his fortune in finance rather than swinging a sledgehammer or on the assembly line, Abraham Lincoln might have reminded him that his wealth was largely the product of other people’s hard work:
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation.~ Abraham Lincoln, First Annual Message to Congress [December 3, 1861]
The controversy surrounding Obama’s 2012 comments are reminiscent of the earlier attacks leveled against Hillary Clinton for her 1996 book It Takes A Village. In a stunning example of judging a book by its title, conservatives attacked then-First Lady Hillary Clinton for promoting the state as a substitute for parents and family.
Mrs. Clinton’s book title was derived from an African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” No doubt the former first lady thought it would be uncontroversial to suggest that communities, as well as families, play a critical role in a child’s wellbeing and happiness. She, like others before and since, underestimated American resistance to anything that challenges its cult of individuality.
A willingness to work hard is a valuable attribute for an individual to possess. Certainly, it increases their chances of reaching and maintaining at least some degree of comfort and status. But, as has been pointed out many times before, if hard work alone guaranteed success every poor mother who has to haul their family’s daily water supply in buckets from distant wells or watering holes would be a millionaire. Both social and physical infrastructure matter and nobody can build or maintain them on their own. That’s as true in the so-called “advanced” nations of the planet as it is in the least developed.
Americans are fond of thinking of the poor as lazy. Unfortunately, that the data shows most of them do work and work hard represents another assault to the myth that it’s their work ethic that makes the successful worthy of their relative wealth and status. “Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American workforce — earn less than $12 an hour,” according to one recent New York Times article, “and almost none of their employers offer health insurance.”
So if it wasn’t all their hard work that made the rich and famous rich and famous, or even made the middle-class, what was it? Showing up, punching the clock, putting in a solid eight hours or maybe a little overtime is, perhaps, arguably necessary but has proven over and over again to be far from sufficient.
If we live anywhere in the developed world we should count ourselves fortunate to have been born in or to have successfully immigrated to a country where hauling our drinking water in buckets is no longer required for our survival. For those of us born in such a nation, it’s pure luck that landed us in a place where we had access to things such as safe drinking water and a public education system. In the US, the only developed country without universal healthcare, being born into a family covered by health insurance provided us with another lucky break. To paraphrase Barack Obama, as children we certainly had nothing to do with building any of those advantages and the many more we inherited.
It should be obvious that being randomly selected by an indifferent universe to begin life in a place with well-paved roads, educational opportunities, healthcare, supermarkets and, more recently, the Internet gives certain individuals a huge headstart from day one. If you happen to have been driven home from the hospital by a chauffeur and had a trust fund established for you before your first birthday, your odds of success rise much further still. If anyone thinks, upon graduating from Harvard or Yale, that this sort of headstart had nothing to do with their degree or the school they received it from it is, to be frank, an indication that their Ivy League education was probably wasted on them.
Try for a moment to imagine sustaining any of these benefits of civilization without the labor of the “nearly a third of the American workforce” currently scraping by on $12 an hour or less. Many of them are in the healthcare industry. Others clean the homes of far wealthier families so both parents can work without either having to worry much about housecleaning or the other basic chores that are daily routines for their poorer neighbors on the other side of town. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of these workers are in the construction trade busy building the homes, schools, and roads of tomorrow. Yes, some are fast-food workers, of which a rapidly shrinking minority are teenagers, but why should that matter? Work is work and even the president is rather fond of KFC.
By now some readers will no doubt be mumbling furiously to themselves about all the effort doctors, lawyers, scientists, and business executives put into their education. Doesn’t this effort deserve to be rewarded? If you’re one of them, you aren’t wrong; you’re just not looking at the big picture.
Picture yourself earning a diploma or degree under the following conditions: To begin with, you must hunt and gather all the food it takes to sustain yourself as you complete your studies. Then there’s the small matter of making the clothes you must wear each day. Before you can even begin to think about studying for your finals you will need to build yourself a shelter, dig a latrine (or invent indoor plumbing complete with a steady water supply and a reliable sewage system), dig a well, build a kiln to fire all your plates and cups in, mine the minerals you’ll need for your utensils (to say nothing of your laptop, which you’ll need to build from scratch). Of course, you’ll also need to cut down a few trees and convert them into paper so you can hand copy all your textbooks (or perhaps you can barter a copy from some earlier student who somehow made it this far).
Hopefully, you get the picture. An awful lot of people make their living taking care of all the necessities for us so we can focus on pursuing our aspirations. Pride is the wrong response given this reality. We didn’t single-handedly overcome the challenges life throws in our way to get where we are today. None of us “pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.” We all stand upon the shoulders of millions of others, both living and dead, who sacrificed themselves to make it possible for us to pursue our dreams — dreams they believed would ultimately benefit them and their posterity as much or more as it would you or I. The proper attitude in this light is one of gratitude and humility.
When companies like Amazon and Walmart fail to pay the men and women that show up to work each day a living wage and when politicians stand before the cameras to defend their “right” to do so, they aren’t just being unjust; they’re actively undermining the very social contract that made our world possible. When people dismiss the working poor as lazy they aren’t merely wrong; they’re lying to themselves in order to justify their own privileged place in our social hierarchy.
Such narratives may be self-serving in the short-term but in the long run, they’re deadly myths that can undo entire nations. In light of current events, one is forced to wonder just how many more Americans need to be driven into poverty before the ideology of the self-made man (or woman) is finally recognized for the civil society killing cancer that it is.