Our system isn’t working – let’s make it better

The case for more humility in global politics and reducing the role of individualism in society.

To look at the state of the world today and believe that everything was going well would require a degree of optimism bordering on insanity. The world economy is not growing, the world’s climate is dying, and intra-country inequality continues to rise. In short, our current model for society and global governance doesn’t work. We need to try something new.

While we could point to a range of factors to explain our current predicament, the bottom line is that the way humans behave in the world today is wrong. We consume too much, we share too little and we are too insular in the way we make decisions. The question therefore is why do we behave in a way which makes our world worse and importantly, how do we change that?

The way that people behave is determined by the incentives that their society creates for them. These incentives seek to constrain the actions of individuals to a “reasonable band” of conduct, that allows a community to live alongside each other without resorting to conflict. While these incentive structures have evolved over many years, the challenge we face today is that our incentive structures over-emphasise the role of the individual and the right to individualism over the rights of the community writ large.

Individualism as an ideology is built upon two essential pillars: freedom of thought and freedom of economic opportunity. In pre-enlightenment societies individuals had neither. People were told what religion to believe, what job to do, where to live, who to marry and who to fight. The church and aristocracy worked in parallel to control as rival, but mutually reinforcing, power structures to ensure that those who sought to challenge their ideas would be mercilessly punished. During this time the role of the state was essential to ensuring that individualism was constrained. It is for these reasons today that Individualist ideas strongly reject the idea of a powerful state structure (think the USA).

 Individualism was/and is always threatened by the community, which may constrain it. From this principle individualism is synonymous with the idea of free markets and freedom of expression in their fullest forms. Individualisms strength is that it allows the individual to explore their creative impulses without the constraint imposed by their community. By freeing individuals from their communities, we allow individuals to develop in their own unique way. Diversity of outcomes and experiences act as a force multipliers, allowing for an exponential growth in interactions and facilitating an extremely powerful creative process. It is for precisely this reason that the West has been so successful for so long. The power of human creativity has been the engine that drove the development of our world today.

 But as many parts of the world today know only too well, individualism also carries great costs.

 Communitarianism is the idea that ones community matters more than the individual and the idea that all members of the community are bound to help and support one another. While some of this process is encouraged by local elites, seeking to enhance their ability to control their community, much of it is also intuitive and self-serving. Communities provide a natural safety net for individuals, an alternative form of insurance against misfortune. It also serves as an effective mechanism to mobilise large numbers of individuals and channel their energies into creating public goods.

 The rise of Individualism as a global ideology however is weakening those social safety nets. By placing the importance of ones self as above that of the broader community, people become detached from those around them. It is this detachment which leads to inadvertent selfishness in decision-making and which also reduces our natural tendency to share with others.

 So what then can we do and how do we try and resolve this conundrum?

 Politics is about providing channels for groups in society to exercise power. By power, I simply mean the ability to do (or not do) an activity. In this context, the problem is that our political structures do not allow us to re-draw the incentive structures that currently govern our societies. We need to find a way to allow our communitarian concerns for others to constrain our individual excesses, in manner that clearly benefits everyone and does not prevent individuals pursuing their own liberty.

 I personally believe the simplest way to start this long process is by making government more transparent and increasingly returning responsibility for governance back to the people. If society is not engaged in making the key decisions that affect it, then members of society will feel no attachment to ensuring these decisions succeed. Individualism has costs, but currently it is too easy for people to shift the blame for society’s failings onto others rather than themselves. We have forgotten the old adage that “No man is an island”. Our decisions have consequences and recognition that as individuals we may be making things worse for others and ourselves is essential to addressing these problems. If we can return responsibility back to society itself and we can remove the excuses for people in society to deflect blame by feigning ignorance, we can begin to come to the real solution to balancing our communal responsibilities with our individual societies: humility.

 Often in society Individuals believe that they have all the answers to societies problems and I am personally very guilty of this. However if we do not all become better at recognising the limits of our abilities and acknowledging our need to listen and respect others, we will not overcome our selfish impulse to follow our own course rather than partnering with others. This is what I mean by Humility today. In politics it remains the case that elected officials remain more interested in trying to secure their re-election and the unilateral enforcement of their ideas, rather than in the complex negotiations of engaging with all elements of society.

 Many of our greatest challenges in the world today could be resolved by people collectively demonstrating more humility than they have shown thus far. Our politicians are meant to be the leaders in our society. A bit more humility at the top may be the answer our world sorely needs.

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