Democracy promises, and celebrates, the equal worth of every individual.
Individualism is the focus here with three distortions of partial truths into Mainstream Delusions (MDs) that increasingly strangle our ability to solve social problems.
MD1: Freedom simply means being able to act without interference by others.
Freedom as non-interference gives you a right to become a neurosurgeon without others preventing you. But that right is delusional without the resources needed to become a neurosurgeon. Freedom is about opportunity as much as non-interference.
That’s why democracy sets the goal of “a level playing field of equal opportunity.” We need institutional action to achieve the goal. No “invisible hand” works here. And saying “Life isn’t fair” is a lame excuse, because we have the power to make life fairer.
There also are limits to freedom as non-interference.
A major, current delusion about freedom as non-interference is the group invoking it by claiming the right to kill people and spread human misery, with impunity.
Given what we know about how COVID-19 is spread, along with its subsequent deaths and related harmful effects, the group refusing to wear masks and observe social distancing is clearly a significant cause of deaths and human misery — without taking responsibility for it.
MD2: The U.S. is a capitalist nation.
This is a delusion because, as a matter of clear facts, the U.S. has a mixed economy heavily dependent upon both capitalistic and socialistic practices.
In contemporary democracy, laissez faire economics (a.k.a. social structure based on free market capitalism) is as obsolete as the divine right of kings.
First, in asserting everyone’s equal worth, we raise everyone’s expectations in terms of that “level playing field” and a better life.
Those expectations are much more demanding today than at the introduction of laissez faire economics in the 18th century — in terms of needing widespread opportunities for personal well-being and for use of everyone’s talents.
The nation is different: Compare today’s population of 330 million with one of 4 million in 1790, education and technology then and now, a $574,786 John Deere 9620RX (at 620 horsepower) with a horse and plow.
Successful democratic governments must act to meet those expectations; otherwise, they find themselves wallowing in injustices and/or creating resentments that challenge the existence of democracy.
Even if we rightly credit laissez faire economics with various positive contributions to raising and meeting expectations, its simplistic model for society, standing alone, creates ever-increasing problems with unrealistic assumptions — greed, continual economic shocks, income inequality, and no distinction between the frivolous and the necessary.
Secondly, technology with its rapid change and large-scale effects produces complexities and fragile interconnections requiring government programs and regulations.
Regulations from building codes to climate change to provide opportunities and eliminate threats;
Massive public infrastructure to support everyday life, meet technological needs, and overcome breakdowns;
A social safety net for equal opportunity and protection against market-driven crashes and displacements;
Corporate responsibility, not economist Milton Friedman’s laissez faire pure pursuit of profit;
And, yes, contributions from a well-regulated free market.
Anyone familiar with the academic world’s regulated free market of ideas knows how worthwhile innovations and protections come from continual testing of proposals, along with experiencing personal accomplishments.
Banning these practices from the socio-economic world makes little sense.
Thirdly, there’s this delusion:
MD3: Since we are self-made individuals, personal responsibility, not government, solves social problems.
If persons do not recognize systemic racism, white privilege, or reparations, it probably results from MD3.
Personal choices make a difference; but other conditions also affect what we are.
Biological and social conditions as well as the limits of our past personal experience are operating here. Recognition of these conditions — along with increasing knowledge in the sciences explaining them — becomes important.
For example, if you are the beneficiary of unjust conditions from the past that you never created, you still may be responsible for making amends.
Acting responsibly is much more demanding than people think.
Persons act responsibly if they (1) make well-informed, good choices and (2) accept praise or blame for consequences of their actions — with respect to both personal and social responsibility. Personal responsibility covers one’s own actions and avoidance of harm to others. Social responsibility covers serving the common good.
Unfortunately, responsibility is often self-defined in a way that ignores (1) and confines (2) to only one’s own actions, while claiming praise for good consequences and making excuses for bad ones.
That’s why we should advocate responsibility, but must rely heavily on a social institution like government for justice and well-being.
Ron Yezzi, now emeritus professor of philosophy at Minnesota State University, taught courses in social and political philosophy. He lives in Mankato.