For decades, Americans have been sold on rugged individualism and told to disdain collectivism and community, a philosophy that has starved many public institutions and fattened up the few at the top, as Lawrence Davidson explains.
By Lawrence Davidson
I have been watching my postal mail more closely than usual. Like most other people, I rarely get personal letters in the postal mail – those having been shifted over to e-mail. So what is left to keep the United States Postal Service in business? It adds up to advertisements, the occasional bill and, most noticeably, non-stop charitable solicitations.
My address has been receiving, on average, four such solicitations a day. Given our six-day delivery schedule, that makes 24 a week. That is over 1,200 solicitations a year. This is not atypical. What can such a deluge possibly mean?
For one thing, it suggests that there are a wide array of community-related projects that are underfunded or simply not funded at all by public monies. These include various forms of medical research; local arts, including orchestras, theaters, and museums; parks and wildlife causes; animal shelters and rescue services; various sorts of poor-relief organizations such as the Salvation Army and Good Will; civil and human rights groups; women’s shelters; and volunteer fire companies. The list seems endless.
In the U.S. this process of charitable solicitation has become a big business. There is an article in the July 14 New York Review of Books entitled “The Undermining of American Charity.” According to the article, the “second most popular charity” in the U.S., in terms of donated dollars, is Fidelity Charitable, a branch of Fidelity Investments that acts as a “middleman” between “individual client accounts” and the charities they wish to support.
Fidelity holds the money and, of course, “manages” it for profit until the clients instruct the firm how to distribute the funds. Fidelity can also help the donor save on taxes by timing out donations. The charges and fees for all this make these “donor advised funds” money makers for “big finance.”
The authors of the NYRB essay don’t like this turn of events. They feel that too much of the charitable funds are being “hoarded” by such institutions as Fidelity in order to maximize profits. Charities end up with less.
Of course, someone was bound to turn charity into big business in an economy and culture that prioritizes the making of profit. But that apparent inevitability aside, what lesson can be learned from the large and growing role played by charitable solicitations in the United States?
An answer can be found in the proposition that, to the extent that a society is dependent on charity to satisfy community needs, the proper role of government is not being realized.
This conclusion is based on a commonsense social democratic point of view – one that assumes that the collective (working through government) has a responsibility to support activities that reflect important community interests. This is, ultimately, one of the purposes of government. Most of the charities soliciting funds through the U.S. Mail would fit into this category of activities.
A Perverse Philosophy
It is significant that, in the U.S., reluctance to use government to own up to this responsibility is rationalized in the name of “freedom” from economic restraint and taxes. That is, the perverse American philosophy of radical individualism preaches that government should not be responsible for community needs beyond supporting the justice system, national defense and the enforcement of contracts.
Everything else is the individual’s responsibility. Such a scheme, at least in theory, gives the citizen the “right” to “get rich” as well as the “right” to endure a lifetime of poverty.
As just suggested, this socio-economic state of affairs is packaged as the secret of success in the “land of opportunity,” where millions come to “make their fortune.” But there is a very high, yet under-recognized cost: a growing loss of any sense of responsibility to a greater holistic community.
One is reminded of one of Margaret Thatcher’s more ridiculous public statements (for the United Kingdom too has been infected by this philosophy of radical individualism) that there is no such thing as society. There are only individuals.
The most obvious consequence of this flawed approach is the pervasive alienation that at once reflects and causes the fractionalization of society. Because they are left adrift from a holistic national community (except, perhaps, when confronted by an alleged foreign enemy), Americans have learned to make do with tribal-like relationships based on local and regional identifications (particularly in the South), gender, class, race, and/or fraternal loyalties based on occupation (like the police).
We are also left with a social structure where there are no longer adequate safety nets, because the funding of such things requires a deeper sense of government responsibility to a community than the prevailing individualistic philosophy allows for. As time goes by, the greater community breaks down into winners and losers and things can turn ugly.
To wit: a continuing economic stagnation of African-American and other minority group neighborhoods; the growing dislike of the police, who are given the job of defending a wholly inadequate status quo; the reciprocated negative feelings displayed by the police (whose own collective identity resembles that of a college fraternity) for those who challenge the system; and outbursts of violence within this disordered yet armed setting – very much in the character of the country’s recently witnessed mayhem.
Thus, it would seem that there is a connection between the ubiquitous institutional begging done through the postal system and the deterioration of U.S. society we are now witnessing. The charitable solicitations that flood American mailboxes are futile efforts to band-aid over a socio-economic affliction.
However, charity is not the answer to American society’s ills, much less those of the world at large. Those ills reflect systemic problems and, in the case of the U.S., a philosophy that denies the reality that humans are social animals who have collective needs. Simply put, the government has, as a matter of perverse principle, abandoned responsibility for its multifaceted community’s welfare.
To address this affliction Americans need to scrap the entire idea of radical individualism and replace it with a community-minded version of social democracy. How likely is that? Well, I would not hold my breath. A lot of individuals are getting rich through the abandonment of the greater community. Yet, Bernie Sanders’s 12 million supporters is (or is it, was) a good sign.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.