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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Individualism, lost privilege, and the Leviathan

by John MacBeath Watkins

Our system of government and way of life was described by the first great thinkers in the liberal tradition, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, as the result of a social contract that was needed so that individuals could join together to protect their rights to life, liberty and property.

In Hobbes' Leviathan, the social contract was everything. In Locke's Second Treatise of Government, it was only almost everything.

So why are we, in this modern age, so focused on individualism?

It has happened before. In the late 19th century, the peculiarly American version of Social Darwinism posited that individuals earned exactly their deserved place in society. It was a philosophy that gave great comfort to the comfortable, but afflicted the afflicted.

Then, the age of the New Deal came along, and people started thinking about helping each other out, and leveling the playing field.

And now, we have about as many people selling the Social Darwinist snake oil as we did in the Gilded Age, under different labels such as Objectivism and libertarianism.

What happened?

My own theory is that this is a response to confusion about who is an American. Both the 19th century's Gilded Age, and our new Gilded Age, are eras in which a high level of immigration has undermined the negotiating leverage of people who work for wages. They have become times in which nativism seeks to exclude the immigrants, and the wealthy seek to justify the morality of their good fortune.

Why do people oppose welfare? Because they worry that the money will be spent on people who don't deserve it -- people who are not like them.

Of course, it's not just immigrants. Conservatives, mainly older white men, oppose feminists and worry that they won't be able to compete on a level playing field because minorities will be given preference. What this means is that the preference once given to white men is being given to others.

The median income for white male workers employed full time is now about what it was in 1973. This is graphically illustrated by a chart from Marginal Revolution, a blog that should be in your bookmarks (follow the link and mouse around on the site, it's worth it):

Now compare this to a chart from the same source for women:

But of course, women still earn less than men. The gains women have made had to come from somewhere, and they came not from the income men made, but from increases in income they might have made. I suspect that if Alex Tabarrok had done a similar chart for other groups who still earn less than white male workers, but have made gains, the chart would look much the same.

And I'm all in favor of equal pay. The thing is, we should not ignore the fact that more equality means, for some, a loss of privilege. And David Frum is on the case when it comes to how this is expressed:
A lot of effort has been invested since 2009 to create a narrative of white endangerment and beleaguerment. The Drudge Report showcases selected local police blotters to create an impression of an intensifying criminal rampage by blacks against whites. Rush Limbaugh very explicitly describes the Obama presidency as a project of racial revenge. Fox News suggests the same idea more obliquely. The theme is taken up—with appropriate euphemism—by elected politicians and some conservative writers as well.

What's going on is obvious to all, but of course any mention of what is being done is met with indignant denials.
In some ways, the individualism produced by resistance to change turns out not to be individualism at all, just nostalgia for lost privilege, and insistence that efforts to level the playing field are unfair.