Toxic Individualism

Libertarians like to make a distinction between individualism and collectivism, in addition to the classic left vs. right political divide. Communists and Nazis are both far to the collectivist side, but Nazis are right wing and communists are left wing. far to one side of the collectivist side and libertarians are far on the individual side.

pol compass

This distinction made sense when there were many people who honestly believed that a top down managed economy could outperform a free market economy.   For instance, Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson famously predicted that the Soviet Union would imminently overtake the US economically. He didn’t remove that prediction from his textbooks until 1989! But at this point there is no excuse for not knowing that capitalism is the best method for achieving overall economic progress.

Now everyone knows that capitalism/democracy harness individual incentives for good collective ends. In the market you have the incentive to try hard and get rich for yourself, but the result is a strong growing economy that benefits the society as a whole. Each individual is somewhat expendable since they can make the wrong bets and suffer the consequences. Some individuals will be winners and some will be losers, but the collective, the country or the society or whatever, will always end up winning.

People on the left today are not collectivists because they don’t put the fate of any group, be it a community, nation or the whole human race above the interests of individuals. They put the neediest individuals at the top and think that all the larger groupings should be sacrificed to the interests of those individuals. They are not libertarians because they support an authoritarian state to impose their views, but their views are individualistic. Collectivists know that individual rights and autonomy are crucial for the overall benefit of the group, but that ultimately it is the species, the nation, the community and the family that are more valuable than the individual.

Toxic individualists don’t want America to be strong. They don’t even want the human race to be strong. They care only about raising up the worst off individuals, even if the costs vastly outweigh the benefits. They are altruists, but they are altruistic individualists who care nothing for what their “selfless” obsessions with other people’s selves will do for the whole.

I was inspired to think about this topic by something called the “demon core.” The demon core, if you don’t want to click on the link, was a 14 lb plutonium ball that was built made during the Manhattan project. It would have been the fissile core of the 3rd bomb to be dropped on Japan but they surrendered before that happened. It was subsequently used to do research at Los Alamos.  It got its nickname because it killed a few scientists who were using it for research in two separate incidents. Basically, what happens with plutonium (or uranium) is that randomly atoms will break apart into lighter elements and release energy + a neutron. If the neutron hits the nucleus of another plutonium atom then that atom will also undergo fission, breaking into smaller elements and releasing more energy and another neutron. If the piece of plutonium is small then most of the random neutrons that get released will exit without hitting another nucleus. But as the chunk of plutonium gets bigger the probability that each neutron will hit another nucleus gets higher and higher. A “critical mass” of plutonium is one in which the number of neutrons hitting other nuclei is high enough that the number of neutrons bouncing around inside the object keeps increasing exponentially. If that happens then the amount of energy and neutrons that are released will grow exponentially until the entire piece blows up and that is an atomic bomb. The demon core was 5% smaller than critical mass, so just leaving it alone it wasn’t too dangerous. But putting objects near it that reflected neutrons back could cause it to start to achieve that run away process of fission. So these 2 different scientists were both standing next to it and physically manipulating neutron reflecting materials to see what the neutron output would do. In both cases their hand slipped and they accidentally started the chain reaction. In both cases they were able to stop the process very quickly (if they hadn’t been able to its likely that a ton of people would have been killed). In both cases they died what I am assuming were horribly painful deaths due to radiation poisoning.

These scientists knew the risk of what they were doing. They knew that radiation was harmful. They knew that they were basically standing next to a nuclear bomb and taking it to the edge of exploding. No scientist in the US would do anything remotely like this today. This was less than 75 years ago and the risk tolerance of normal, intelligent people was seemingly orders of magnitude higher than ours is. Is that the biggest social change that has occurred since the industrial revolution? I think it may be. Its an unbelievably massive change. So many risky behaviors that were routine even 25-30 years ago are now considered practically criminal. When I was a kid most children rode their bikes without helmets. If they were not far from school they walked and there were crossing guards at the busy streets to help young children not be hit by cars. Now, if you let a 1st grader walk to school out of your eyesight you are likely to get in legal trouble. Leaving a 10 year old safely at the own home by themselves watching an ipad for an hour can get you in legal trouble. You can never ever leave children unattended in a car while you run into a store. My parents used to do that all the time.

What has changed? I think that it is a toxic individualism that has taken hold. No one can take the emotional hurt of any individual being harmed or neglected, so they impose enormous collective costs to minimize the chance of it happening.

Anti-vaxxers are another example. Most of them know that the risk of vaccines are small. And yet, if they can prevent the small chance of harm to their child by imposing a larger expected harm on the collective they will do so.

People who care about the collective don’t bemoan the fact that best and brightest are getting more resources to do more good. They celebrate it. Its what is supposed to happen. It is what will make our nation strongest in the long run. People who want to prop up the weak at the expense of the strong and the whole are the true individualists.

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