Wherein I agree with Paul Ryan

15/08/2012 § 3 Comments

One of the Paul Ryan quotes making the rounds on the interwebs, now that he is the US Republicans’ choice for Vice Presidential candidate, is some version of this:

the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.

I think he is absolutely right.

Not, perhaps, in the sense he means. I get the feeling that he is making a normative statement: in the 20th century, collectivism went too far, and we must oppose it with individualism. I think he is right, though, in a positive sense: collective concerns are in conflict with individual concerns. Currently, different political systems are finding different ways to deal with the conflict. It will be interesting to see which approaches are successful.

In that regard, Ryan’s ideology is a hypothesis. He is fighting for individualism on the theory that it will be successful. To me, that’s an assertion that will be tested and, in the fullness of time, we will know whether he was right.

However, this evolutionary interpretation (variation in political systems, selection of the fittest) has a central problem that I cannot resolve. A speaker at an economics conference put it very nicely: success in a social system is endogenous. That is, those who gain some success can then decide the criteria by which further success is defined, and so tilt the system in their favour.

Which then raises the question: is there some exogenous criterion we could use? If we start fossicking around for criteria, we find they are all contentious or compromised or, indeed, somewhat endogenous. GDP, child mortality rates, literacy, happiness, or indoor plumbing? Average, median, distribution, or tails?

This fight between individualism and collectivism becomes a fight over a more basic question: what do we want? What do we want for ourselves, our families, our societies, and our world? That’s not an easy question for an individual to answer, much less for a collective.


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§ 3 Responses to Wherein I agree with Paul Ryan

  • Andrew says:

    So just to throw in a little psychoanalysis (which is always a useful thing when trying to understand republicans ;-)):

    If we take Lacan’s ideas on the Unconscious seriously, particularly ‘man’s desire is the desire of the Other’ and ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ then we have to accept that all members of a society are intimately connected through the language of the unconscious, we can’t avoid this. So collective is Truth and individualism is fantasy, it is Imaginary. When viewed this way Ryan’s statement should read:

    the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of fantasy versus Truth.

    …and he is clearly on the side of fantasy. That is not to say that our social construction of ‘collective’ is not also a carefully constructed fantasy. The difference I guess is in how far we are willing to reject Truth: In the case of Ryan he is very keen to fully reject the collective in favour of individual. Probably because for him this fantasy has been very profitable?

    I apologise to readers re: the technical language of Lacanian psychoanalysis I use above.

  • JC says:

    This paragraph does a pretty good job of reconciling the two POV..

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

    The first sentence makes it clear that no man or collective gives rights to an individual.. these come from a higher authority, but that free men will collectivise to protect such God given rights.
    Whether God is real or conceptual doesn’t matter.. all that matters is you deny another man or group the power to give or withhold basic rights and by Golly, we’ll form a collective to protect them!

    So individualism and collectivism are simply two sides of the same coin.. and the problems come about when one side is weighted more heavily than the other. Ryan will surely point to the GM bailout, Obamacare, gun control, smoking/drinking/food control and over regulation of business are signs of a two heavily weighted side of the coin and Obama will say that has to be to protect the collective.. I’ll go with Ryan.


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