When I first became interested in politics, I quickly experienced a certain frustration with what I saw at the time to be "both sides" of the political dialogue. I was disappointed with some on the left who seemed to focus all their energy on the ills of the system and not enough on personal responsibility. I was equally dismayed upon being preached to by the right about self-reliance without so much as a peep about the system.
To me, it was obvious. The left focused more on circumstance, while the right focused more on choice. The problem was simply that both sides were guilty of ignoring the good points of the other side.
What I didn’t understand was that those on the left were also focused on choice, yet it was often a different kind of choice. While the right emphasized liberty through individual choice, the left focused on the collective choice necessary for liberty to exist.
Now what do I mean by this? Well, let’s think in terms of a new born baby. Every baby born is as clueless as the next. Its only chance in life is the way it reacts to its given circumstances. Each one of us contributes to those circumstances.
Whether it be politics or economics or education or religion or family, we contribute (even if in silence) to the institutional makeup of our society. With so much talk about personal responsibility, many on the right tend to neglect this idea of collective responsibility.
Such institutions are treated not as the sum of our collective choice, but rather as a natural order like the weather. After all, self-reliant people don’t sit around griping about the weather all day. They dress accordingly and go on about their business.
The problems with this analogy are obvious. For one, the weather doesn’t have an agenda. If a group of people are walking down the street and it begins to rain, everyone’s going to get wet. Sure, you can run for cover or put something over your head, but the rain drops don’t discriminate as to whom they fall upon.
Our institutions, however, are not so fair. The system may mean opportunity for one group and obstacles for another. Upon such acknowledgement, many resort to the second flaw in the analogy.
If we see the system as unfair, we may work to change it. But if the system is like the weather, then there isn’t that much we can really do about it. This of course reduces progress to a collection of accidents rather than the product of constant human struggle.
Nevertheless, rather than entertain an honest debate about structural change, many on the right will tell you that if you don’t like the weather you should probably go live somewhere else.
All of which is quite disingenuous. Though they may tout it as part of the self-reliance mantra, the right does not for one second believe in the "every man for himself" cliché. Not only would such a scenario be disastrous, the degree of cooperation our current institutions require dispels even the notion.
What may be less disingenuous is their subscription to the "every group for itself" mentality. Whereas, it’s not necessarily collective choice that they despise. It’s collective choice for an egalitarian society.
As long as it is being used in the service of competition for power and resources, they have no fundamental disagreement with the exercise of collective choice. In fact, it’s the only way such competition can exist. This of course institutes the type of hierarchy that dismisses any sense of global human family and instead fosters injustices like classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and jingoism (all of which are again either ignored or written off as unchangeable).
But let’s get back to individual choice. By focusing on the system, or rather our collective choices as a society, the left indeed does address individual choice. They simply understand that one’s choice is only as powerful as the limits placed upon it. If you are going to encourage people to make sound choices, it only makes sense to ensure that the circumstances surrounding them are adequate for such choices.
Sure, people shouldn’t spend too much, but what about a commercial culture that tells them to consume at every turn? Sure, people should eat right, but what about a food industry that fills its products with junk? Sure, people shouldn’t fight, but what about an entire economy based on cut-throat competition and a patriotism sold on militarism?
If our culture nurtures destructive behavior, we can’t just tell people to resist the culture. We have to address this culture, as well as our role within it.
It’s not that the left are gluttonous idiots. As proponents of committed struggle for social justice, many on the left merely reject a sense of personal responsibility that stops at the luck of one’s birth. Instead, they believe personal responsibility extends to all those who you could have been born as and not just the one you were.
This means more than chastising people for falling into a hole. It means addressing why the hole is there to begin with and if there is anything that can be done about it. On the other hand, those who would encourage us to ignore the hole are often the very ones benefiting from it, or at least unaffected by it.
It doesn’t matter how self-reliant you are if the game is fixed. Neither is it personally responsible to keep adapting to a failing model. This is often lost on those who preach personal responsibility. To be personally responsible, if such a term is to have any meaning, we must use all we have, including our solidarity, to create a better model.
This of course is what has the right so scared. The powerful tolerate individual choice so long as they can dictate what choices are offered. Which supplier to buy from. Which candidate to select from. Which media to be informed by. When the powerful encourage you to be personally responsible, they mean responsible to them.
The danger of acknowledging the role of collective choice is that it will eventually lead to the creation of a more desirable world independent of their control. And that’s why it was so important that when I first became interested in politics that I think the problem was that both sides were guilty of ignoring the good points of the other side.
And why, you might ask, would it help the right if someone thinks their glass may be half empty? Easy. It simply keeps you in the middle, and people in the middle don’t fight for change. They stay in the middle, either frustrated or confused, and continue to choose from whatever the powerful offer them.