The last few weeks have forced many of us to think about some very basic questions. To wit: what do we, as individuals, owe the community or society at large? And in turn, what does the community (our neighbors, our town, our country) owe us? Many still idealize the concept of the rugged individualist; the idea of a “socialist” system of shared interdependence and reciprocity brings out their ire. And yet, given recent events, can anyone seriously deny the fact that we all live in community, and that we are our “brother’s keeper?”
The majority of Americans recognized long ago that community is essential to success and well-being. Living alone or in isolation has become less viable in our evolving global society. Individuals are incredibly small in the long-run scheme of things – Who’s in Whoville, really – so small relative to the greater world around us.
Some romantically believe that they can still “go it alone.” And yet, just close the schools for a week or two and suddenly there is panic: where will our kids get their free hot meals during the shutdown? And who will care for them while we are at work? Yes our schools provide education, but they also provide functions which once were centered in the parental home.
The shift from self-reliance towards mutual-reliance and dependence has evolved over the centuries. And while for some this may seem counterintuitive insofar as independence and individual initiative are highly valued American traits, the upshot is that mutual support and cooperation have always been central to our society’s overall advancement and growth. How so? The reasons are clear, and are centered squarely within the evolution of the Capitalist system.
A simple example will illustrate how this concept, which is part of a larger discussion of the principle of economies of scale, works in the real world. Imagine that you have six people who need to travel from point “A” to “B.” All have cars and know how to drive. Which is better, for each to drive their own cars, or for one to drive a van while the remaining five ride in back?
An economist familiar with the history of Capitalist economic development has the answer: The best driver in the group, the “driving specialist,” drives the van. It is a waste of time and resources for the others to sit behind the wheel of their individual vehicles. Rather, each should spend their time as they sit in the van doing productive work on their MacBooks, specializing in those areas to which they are best suited: architecture, finance, medicine, whatever. Specialization – be it on the level of the individual or, as we see in today’s global economy, the level of the nation – leads to innovation and development. The more help we receive from one another to carry out different tasks instead of trying to do everything ourselves, the more we are freed up to experiment and try out new ideas in our own respective fields of expertise.
And more, specialization facilitates mechanization, yet another major step in the process of development. It’s that simple (and is also the rationale behind some of the greatest eras of progress in human history, such as the Industrial Revolution).
The alternative is sheer folly. To place an emphasis upon the individual, and to believe that he can and should do everything himself and be able to make informed judgments (and to believe that he has the forethought, knowledge and the capacity to do everything well) is, to say the least, short-sighted. Specialists exist for a reason. Expertise is a rare commodity; folks with training and education know things and are able to accomplish tasks because they have the specialized skills and preparation to do so. But in community, we all share and benefit from one-another’s expertise.
Needless to say, this is how the U.S. became the strongest country in the world. By taking in the best and brightest from every corner of the planet, by specializing, innovating, and, through risk-taking, we developed at a speed that left the rest of the world in the dust. We aren’t totally alone in this regard of course. Huge countries like India and China also have been able to leverage their large populations in similar ways. But they have not succeeded nearly to the same extent, and meantime many of the best Chinese and Indian innovators today call the U.S. home.
Moreover, if we look at the least-developed countries in the world today, we see a familiar pattern of myopia and stagnation: they are risk-averse, largely dependent upon external sources for key sustaining commodities such as foodstuffs, are dominated by homogenous populations resistant to externally-generated ideas, innovations or concepts and, more often than not, depend upon undiversified, single-resource economies for the majority of their income generation.
Then there are those additional countries and societies which, due to totalitarian governance combined with disproportionate levels of national pride, fervor, or similar traits, have purposely sought to “go it alone,” believing that independence and self-reliance suggest strength, while traits like cooperation and inclusion imply weakness. Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar/Burma are examples – and we all know what their “self-reliant” policies of import substitution have done for their economies.
In short, it is true that some may still believe even today that going it alone suggests self-reliance, independence, control, strength – even, perhaps, masculinity and power. But if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it is that when the stakes are highest, this is hardly the case. Rather, it is more apparent than ever that we are best served when we act in community, sharing resources, listening to those with training and expertise and, above all, treating one another with decency and kindness while appreciating the humanity we all share.
Steven C. Dinero, PhD is the Executive Director of the Carbon County Museum.