Middle American Individualism: Political Participation and Liberal Democracy
a book by Herbert J. Gans
(our site's book review)
Gans thinks deeper than most and understands better than most. His thinking on individualism, for instance, isn’t colored by popular sound bites, overgeneralizations, or conventional wisdom. It springs instead from years of thinking, studying and data collection as well as empiricism. All of this is his upside. His downside is his liberalism. Anyway, he gets his book off to a flying start with this look at the goal of individualism:
“. . . the goal of popular individualism is hardly separation from other people. Instead, it is to live mainly, and participate actively, in a small part of society, the array of family, friends, and informal relations and groups which I refer to as microsociety. Popular individualism is, therefore, very much a social phenomenon.”
The heroic cowboy—long a symbol of heroic individualism—is the opposite of Gans' view of individualism
Gone are the insipid, thoughtless implications that individualism is necessarily associated with isolation or selfishness, or that somehow it’s a concept intrinsically opposed to the concept we call community. Gans sees the system and therefore rather than spreading the notion of zero-sum, individual versus community in stark black-and-white, win-lose, polarized polemics he tends to see the forest for the trees. He doesn’t buy the foolishness afoot today in the form of ideas that imply that self-development leads to alienation or increased social disintegration or greed or all of the above.
He says: “The opportunity for self-development will surely add to people’s sense of happiness,” and “. . . if extended families disperse and fewer relatives are available, people who depend on them could turn into lost souls,” and “If there is a general reduction of punitive conformity pressures, say of the kind once exerted on spinsters, as well as more opportunity for people to make personal choices that spell self-development, popular individualism will surely be a boon to mental health.”
His stance on individualism is balanced, seeing the problems of too much as well as too little, and seeing that a balanced life requires being somewhere near the center of the individual-community continuum. He looks for a way to involve middle America in the political participation a democracy requires, since these people are turned off to politicians and bureaucracies; he outlines several ways in his book. This is reasonable.
Gans champions the cause of liberals, income redistribution, welfare states and social engineering
But, on the other hand, he spends much of his book championing the cause of liberals, income redistribution, welfare states and social engineering. He wants our democracy to become more representative, which is fine, but then he wants that democracy to get so liberal that it turns into an egalitarian welfare state, redistributing so much income—especially from the rich—that people do well regardless of their efforts, values, morals, attitudes or willingness to help themselves. Conservatives will rightly find this part of Gans’ thinking extremely distasteful. Just because people have been voting for a high-entitlement welfare-state democracy (for everyone but the poor) for so long doesn’t make it what’s best for the people morally, financially, philosophically or ethically. If he could have used his keen intelligence as productively on this issue as he did on issues such as individualism and self-development, this book could have been a classic.
Mary Ann Glendon and David Blankenhorn have said that inadequate social environments are precluding humans from fulfilling their potential, and yet the 20th century proved that we cannot buy sociocultural viability. But there is a way: see The Forest Through The Trees.
Gans misses the way that the strategy of 'throwing money at problems' has worked very poorly—you cannot buy sociocultural viability