Will column: Is the individual obsolete?

During the 2012 presidential election, there occurred one of those remarkably rare moments when campaign rhetoric actually clarified a large issue. It happened when Barack Obama, speaking without a written text, spoke from his heart and revealed his mind:

“Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. … If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

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The italicized words ignited a heated debate, and Obama aides insisted that their meaning was distorted by taking them “out of context.” But Obama was merely reprising something said less than a year earlier by Elizabeth Warren, a former member of his administration who was campaigning to become a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. She said: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. … You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Warren, who was then a member of Harvard’s faculty, was being with her statement, as Obama was with his, a pyromaniac in a field of straw men (as William F. Buckley characterized his friend John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard economist). Warren, like Obama, was energetically refuting propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context and all attainments are, to some extent, enabled and conditioned by contexts that are shaped by government.

What made Warren’s riff interesting, and Obama’s echo of it important, is that both spoke in order to advance the progressive project of diluting the concept of individualism. Dilution is a prerequisite for advancement of a collectivist political agenda. The more that individualism can be portrayed as a chimera, the more that any individual’s achievements can be considered as derivative from society, the less the achievements warrant respect. And the more society is entitled to conscript — that is, to socialize — whatever portion of the individual’s wealth that it considers its fair share.

Society may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual to keep the remainder of what society thinks is misleadingly called the individual’s possession. Note that “society” necessarily means society’s collective expression: the government. Note also that government will not be a disinterested judge of what is its proper share of others’ wealth. This collectivist agenda is antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government — including such public goods as roads, schools and police — is instituted to facilitate individual striving, aka the pursuit of happiness.

Warren and Obama asserted something unremarkable — that the individual depends on cooperative behavior by others. But they obscured this point: It is conservatism, not progressivism, that takes society seriously. Conservatism understands society not as a manifestation of government but as the spontaneous order of cooperating individuals in consensual, contractual market relations. Progressivism preaches confident social engineering by the regulatory state. Conservatism urges government humility in the face of society’s extraordinary — and creative — complexity. American society, understood as hundreds of millions of people making billions of decisions daily, is a marvel of spontaneous cooperation. Sensible government facilitates this cooperative order by providing roads, schools, police, etc., and by getting out of the way of spontaneous creativity.

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This is a dynamic, prosperous society’s “underlying social contract.”

(c) 2019, George F. Will. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Books. All rights reserved.