Business Must Understand U.S. Individualism and Conflicting Visions

08/01/2011 05:30 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011
  • Brad Reid Senior Scholar, Dean Institute for Corporate Governance and Integrity, Lipscomb University

Modern Western individualism began with the Reformation translations of the Bible into native languages. A literate individual could read the text without clerical interpretation. Later the economic philosophy of Adam Smith elevated individual economic activity. Recently, the U.S. counterculture movement of the 1960s reveled in the philosophy of social and cultural individualism. At the same time, U.S. political movements advocated a vision of the collective good, starting with the U.S. "New Deal" in the 1930s and subsequently the civil rights, environmental, and consumer movements of the 1960s. It was inevitable that there would be a clash of individualism and competing collective visions. The question is how this clash will impact the future of the U.S.

It appears that individually tailored goods, services, and health care will continue to proliferate as well as individualized tools of social media expression. Business will face an ever accelerating product life cycle. Established institutions such as religion and education will no longer be able to offer a single "mass produced product." However, the potentially dangerous side of individualism is the breaking down of a collectively nationally shared social and political vision. Further complicating the movement toward individualism, some life choices, such as the decision to have an abortion, are morally offensive to influential segments of the U.S. population.

Political and social fractures in the U.S. began to appear in the 1960s. The impact of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement are prime examples. Competing visions have become less willing to accommodate dissent within their membership and consequently have become more extreme. Some visions essentially want the government to withdraw from the commonly understood U.S. social contract that includes such things as public education and a variety of publicly funded social welfare programs. Another vision wants to expand the utilization of public resources to create a society more like that in northern Europe. This division runs deeply through contemporary U.S. politics.

Consequently the debt ceiling debate is a small part a much larger clash of opposed visions about the relative roles of the public and private spheres of influence. It also demonstrates the continuing rise of individualism with the fracturing of traditional political party discipline. Pressured by both sides in this climate are those who voice moderation or are economically in the middle class. Economic and political polarization is the order of the day. The economic distance between the wealthiest and poorest segments of U.S. society is increasing. At the same time we see an ever increasing cultural diversity in the U.S. population with groups having less dialogue. Unfortunately history tells us that such polarization produces instability that, when taken to an extreme, will collapse a society into disorder. Subsequently an elite arises to restore order. Consider the history of the French Revolution. The U.S. has already experienced a civil war, so extreme division, however improbable, is not impossible.

There are those who profit politically and economically from both individualism and advocating an extreme vision. No compromise is the order of the day. Additionally, why would one who ardently believes in the correctness of his or her vision compromise it? The difficulty of U.S. national leaders in reaching consensus on macroeconomic policies demonstrates the strength of the forces driving this division. These "politicians" find it increasingly difficult and costly to be "statesmen," that is to make decisions that are contrary to narrow partisan interests. A rapid 24/7 global news cycle has vividly broadcast to the world the conflicting visions that currently divide U.S. society. What can be difficult to accurately assess is the future impact of these visions. The recent virtual paralysis of the U.S. federal government is not to be taken lightly and will shake international confidence in long term U.S. stability.

Political and economic leaders must be willing to reach across factional divisions to implement policies that benefit all of society. Universally beneficial social goals include encouraging education, job creation, innovation, robust infrastructure, and maximizing freedom. All sides at least abstractly advocate these ideals but are increasingly unable to agree on the way to achieve these ends. The writers of the U.S. Constitution developed divided government to prevent any faction from becoming dominate. We can hope that factional battles over what vision will dominate do not result in U.S. social and political collapse. Cautionary observation and analysis is an appropriate course of action for business.