David Brooks' Jihad Against Individualism

On behalf of America, I am staging an intervention. Country first!

David Brooks is evidently infatuated with the idea that individualism is just downright unscientific. It is more than a bit queer that Brooks uses this alleged Fact of Science to argue that American conservatives ought to purge all remaining vestiges of individualism from its thought since, you know, American conservative ideology is engineered entirely along scientific lines. On one understanding of the words, the opposite of “individualism” is “socialism”. So I think it’s safe to say that David Brooks is on a quest to make the Republican Party safe for scientific socialism. And that’s just the sort of surprise that makes David Brooks such a consistently interesting thinker.

Nevertheless, I cannot say I understand what he is talking about. Brooks appears to believe that the discovery that human beings are hypersocial mammals is some kind of earthshattering gamechanger, but it’s hard to grasp why he thinks this. Brooks’ account of the science is fine, but the remainder of the column is a lavish non-sequitur, a richly embroidered but intellectually vulgar instance of the naturalistic fallacy. Indeed, the fact that he tries to get where he does with the science he cites is evidence that he doesn’t understand it so well. Now, Brooks is entirely correct when he writes that

…we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion.

And it is also true that we are intensely social creatures, deeply connected to one another, and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often not an illusion. It is least often an illusion when one inhabits a moral culture in which psychological individuation, autonomy, and independence are cultivated and prized. If we have managed to wring a relatively individualistic culture out of the raw materials of our tribal natures, that is a triumph of deanimalizing civilization. Individualism is indeed unnatural — much like other noted mockeries of the natural order, such as equality under the law, vaccination, and the wheel. Brooks might stop to note that improvements on nature are both possible and desirable. The existence of mirror neurons no more debunks individualism than the existence of retinas debunks telescopes.

Americans individualism is a manifestation of human sociality. In our culture, individualist norms are routinely transmitted from one generation to the next through the unique hypersocial-mammalian capacity for cultural transmission. Brooks apparently wants to interfere with further transmission of individualistic norms because they produce a politics he finds insufficiently authoritarian and illiberal. Which is, of course, precisely why we need to double down on a moral culture of individualism.

Do individualistic cultures cut across the grain of human nature? Sure  — in a good way! It is a well-confirmed finding of happiness research that individualistic cultures are happier than collectivistic ones. Indeed, this discovery grounds a number of hypotheses about why average wealth correlates with average levels of self-reported life satisfaction. For example, here is Aaron Ahuvia in the Journal of Happiness Studies:

Rather [than increasing happiness directly through increased consumption], economic development increases SWB [subjective well-being] by creating a cultural environment where individuals make choices to maximize their happiness rather than meet social obligations (Coleman, 1990; Galbraith, 1992; Triandis, 1989; Triandis et al., 1990; Veenhoven, 1999; Watkins and Liu, 1996). This cultural transformation away from obligation and toward the pursuit of happiness is part of a broader transition away from collectivism and toward individualist cultural values and forms of social organization.

Got that? Wealth, which produces all sorts of hugely desirable human goods, also weakens orientation toward pre-assigned roles and their obligations and strengthens the orientation toward individual fulfillment, resulting in more fulfillment. Collectivist moral cultures do serve an important function in the typical human condition. But we are lucky when that function has become unnecessary  —  when collectivist values become a vestigial organ of the body politic. Ahuvia puts it nicely:

Collectivism revolves around face, honor, and public reputation. Collectivism is associated with poor countries because it is a cultural survival mechanism born of the necessity for group solidarity. Indeed collectivism is a survival mechanism that is positively correlated with well-being if one looks only at a sub-sample of poor countries (Veenhoven, 1999). Survival mechanisms are serious business. It is not surprising, then, that collectivist societies often rely on social coercion via threats and rewards to one’s public reputation to ensure compliance with group norms, since the stakes for the group are so high.

Does Brooks really want to fight so hard for a morality of poverty? It is true that in straitened circumstances we are forced to close ranks and get with the program, but this is and ought to be repulsive to a free people.

Brooks mentions Edmund Burke and Adam Smith as “conservatives” (WTF?) who really understood social embeddeness. They sure did! So they’re not individualists? Well, in Friedrich Hayek’s brilliant essay, “Individualism: True and False,” he says this:

The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke…

The difference between Brooks and Hayek on this score is that Hayek understands Western political thought, and, more generally, he grasps that sociality is an enabling condition, not the antithesis, of the ethos of individualism that created modern liberty and the wealth of the Western world.

America is reputed to be the world’s most individualistic culture, and has been for a long time. Our individualism is the foundation of the mind-blowing innovation and variety of the American scene. Our individualism is a main source of our world-historical prosperity and high levels of happiness. Yet Brooks, unembarrassed or unaware, wheels out a fallacious appeal to nature specifically to discredit this — the most distinctive and valuable feature of American culture.

It clearly tickles Brooks’ collectivist fancy “when John McCain talks at a forum about national service.” But that is precisely when McCain exposes his martial animosity to the character of his own country. Brooks may wish to join McCain in an effort to efface the separateness of lives, to degrade the dignity of self-creation and self-command by denying its possibility, to cultivate in Americans the docility of subjects ready to kill and die for the state. In Prussia this may have been a “conservative” project. But this is America. And defending American individualism is my one conservative impulse!

So, David Brooks, here’s a line. Paine, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Garrison, Spooner, Tucker, Twain, Mencken, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, and America are over here on this side. And there’s you over there. You are most welcome to step across and attempt to wrest the individualism from our cold dead fingers. Bring McCain! In fairness, I should say that Emerson is a vicious Indian leg wrestler.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center