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.