There is only one way out of our current crisis, but it is not a message that the people are in the mood to hear right now. With images of police killings, calls to defund the police, mass protests, rioting, looting, and generalized mayhem on our minds, most Americans are not in the mood to hear that the answer lies in us. It lies in each of us. It lies in the fundamental American principle of individualism.
On all sides, Americans are hearing the opposite message right now. They are hearing that what matters most is their group identity: their racial identity, their socio-economic identity, their gender, their age. Americans have additionally been lumped into groups in the response to the coronavirus pandemic. We are told, in the most intimate ways, whether we can work, where we can eat, whether we can socialize or come together to see sporting events or plays or engage in religious observances (but protests are okay). The answer to all these problems, we are told, lies in collectively restricting our liberty.
It is in this dry-tinder atmosphere that the police killing of George Floyd is the spark that has set our society aflame.
The answer, although Americans don’t want to hear it right now, is individualism. Still, it merits saying now so that when passions are cooler, we can consider it and begin to use this principle to restore our society.
The principle is individualism, as in “the individual versus the collective.” America was founded on the principle that the government has only one purpose: to protect the rights of individual Americans. It was not to protect groups of Americans as such, whether identified by race, gender, socio-economic status, age, or any other designation. The relevant unit is the individual, not the collective.
The government protects the individual by protecting our individual rights. In the original formulation by the philosopher and political theorist John Locke, this is our individual right to life, liberty, and property. It is these principles that became the inspiration for the principles enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And in calling for a revolution against British tyranny and the formation of a new American government, our Declaration said, “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
This principle has always only been imperfectly applied within the United States. It was not applied to African-Americans, and a civil war and long civil rights struggle had to happen to begin to make this so. It did not fully apply to women, and the women’s suffrage and women’s rights movements had to happen before women were fully included. But the principle was first implemented here, in the United States, where an entire society built on this principle of individualism appeared for the first time in history.
The root of the principle of individual rights is that it is the individual that matters, not the collective that he or she belongs to. Only an individual can act to pursue his or her own happiness, and it is only by protecting an individual’s rights that his or her happiness can be pursued. A collective does not have feelings of happiness or anything else. Only individuals do.
Although America has made tremendous progress in extending and fully protecting individual rights, for example by extending them to African-Americans and women, in our culture, sadly, we are now moving away from the principle of individualism.
In the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd killing, but even earlier, we are being pressured on all sides to identify ourselves fundamentally, not as individuals, but by our group identity. We are asked to identify ourselves primarily by our skin color, our socio-economic “class,” our gender, whether we are a foreigner or native-born, whether we are Red-state, or Blue-state, and whether we deserve such collective guilt-inducing labels as “privilege” or “oppressor” or its opposite, “victim.”
Mass protests and mob violence further pressure Americans, almost as a self-defense mechanism, to identify themselves by group affiliation. There is psychological safety in numbers. This is a profoundly unAmerican way in which to view ourselves. It has and will lead to disaffection, violence, and maybe even a new civil war. It certainly is playing itself out in an intensely polarized group-versus-group politics. In the midst of all this, the rights of the individual are lost.
The slogans and protests and violence all have the effect of pulling us to identify ourselves primarily by our membership in a particular group, not to identify each of us by our own unique, individual identity. George Floyd had his individual rights violated. Yet, the collective memes and protests are trying to make us forget our individual identities and accept blame or to seek comfort and protection solely on the basis of group identity.
This can only lead to a war of all against all.
We must assert and demand that our individual rights are protected, both by the state and from the state. But before we can do this, we must remember that what matters is our fundamental identity as individuals, not the characteristics we share with a group. One’s characteristics — including characteristics of race, gender, and socio-economic status — are characteristics possessed by each of us. But such characteristics are irrelevant for our character, which is ours alone, and is the result of our choices.
It is with regard to our character that we must judge ourselves and others. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech captured this idea when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
We must judge ourselves and others by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin, our gender, socio-economic class, or any other group characteristic.
We Must Turn to Individualism to Find the Way Out
Consider some ways (this is not an exhaustive list, just examples) that applying the principle of individualism and its corollary — individual rights — can help navigate a way out of the current crisis.
Take the killing of George Floyd, and all unjust killings and uses of force by the police. Individualism can begin to point the way to a solution of this problem. The most important individualist principle is individual justice. The police officers responsible for George Floyd’s death have been arrested and will face trial in a courtroom.
Longer-term, laws must be eliminated that create unnecessary encounters with the police. Each encounter with police is potentially violent, and the fewer of them the better. Along these lines, eliminate the host of unnecessary laws against commerce that invite unnecessary interactions with the police.
An example is the laws that criminalize everyday economic activities, such as the unnecessary, silly and ultimately deadly law against selling individual untaxed cigarettes that led to the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City six years ago. There are many more such laws that criminalize ordinary commerce and unnecessarily invite interactions with police. These laws violate individual rights. They should be repealed.
On a much larger scale, we must recognize that our right to life means that we own our own bodies. Ingesting particular drugs, whether alcohol, marijuana, or heroin, is a personal choice and an aspect of a person’s right to their body. Eliminate the drug laws that result in the unnecessary arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people. Fully 46% of federal prisoners and 20% of all 2.3 million prisoners at all levels, federal, state, and local, are incarcerated due to drug laws. 38% of all prisoners are African-Americans and many of them are in jail for drug offenses.
Respecting this individual right by repealing the drug laws will reduce the number of encounters with police, each of which carries the risk of excessive use of force.
The principle of individualism says that each one of us is responsible for our own health. We can choose whether and how to protect ourselves from coronavirus by using masks, socially distancing, and avoiding large crowds. The government lockdown has unjustly impoverished millions by shutting down their businesses and preventing them from working. It is this atmosphere of mass unemployment and shuttered businesses that helped create the tinder for such a widespread reaction of looting and violence in response to the George Floyd killing.
The solution to our country’s problems lies in individualism. Empower the individual by repealing laws that violate the individual right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Enforce justice when those rights are violated. This is the way forward out of this crisis, not group identity politics.