The Problem of Hyperindividualism and its Impact on American Life

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“Hyper” – from the Greek “huper,” meaning over, beyond. “Individualism” – the stance or philosophy that values the moral worth of the individual as well as independence and self-reliance.

In the US, individualism generally has a positive meaning and often (or at least should) lead to the development of each person’s fullest potential. Hyperindividualism, on the other hand, is individualism in the extreme, and by definition unethically supersedes the common good. The concept appears to be so new that a definition does not even appear in Wikipedia, and only a short definition appears in Wiktionary – “A tendency for people to act in a highly individual way, without regard to society.” In this post, I argue that a positive form of individualism and self-reliance has been overshadowed in American society by an insidious hyperindividualism and thus must be carefully considered in our current social context.

If we look again at our discussions of the common good, social capitalism, European workfare, and how millions of dollars are made off the suffering of others, we can begin to draw contrasts between what helps foster the common good – benefits for most citizens, if not all – and what enhances only an individual or a small group of individuals. We can begin to see how an excessive focus on “me, mine and ours” – often a subconscious focus buried in concepts of American exceptionalism and patriotism – has wide-ranging ramifications for us personally and as a nation.

Some everyday examples of hyperindividualism to ponder:

  • A person who strives to better him- or herself, with education, a career, family life, civic involvement, and so on, can be seen as exercising a healthy individualism. This striving for betterment veers into hyperindividualism when his votes consistently prioritize self-gains or self-advantage over the good of the community; when she knowingly purchases non-essential goods that have been made by oppressed peoples; when a family routinely wastes energy, water, food and other non-renewable resources without concern or care.
  • Cheating in college (approximately 75 percent of students surveyed admitted to cheating at least once in college) is hyperindividualistic. It may appear to the student that s/he is hurting no one and will get a grade advantage in the course, but cheating erodes trust in the overall system (the common good) and is unfair to students who do not cheat.
  • Many advertisements – on television, on the Internet, in newspapers – are hyperindividualistic: they promote a product or service that purports to make the individual’s life better, more fulfilling, more attractive, sexier. While advertising in and of itself is not necessarily bad or unethical, it is important that we become discerning about possibly deceptive, fraudulent or misleading “propaganda.”

o   Does the product being advertised truly make people’s lives better, or does it serve primarily to enrich the head of the product’s company?

o   Will purchasing that product be a beneficial use of the buyer’s money – which is a finite resource – or will it enhance the profits of an entity that may be generally irresponsible toward its employees, its community and/or the environment?

  • The deliberate violation of a traffic law when it’s not necessary – such as running a red light when the driver can easily stop – is another example of hyperindividualism. trafficWhile many times there are no immediate negative consequences of such an infraction, it often does have repercussions – by blocking the flow of traffic for other drivers, or by placing pedestrians in jeopardy. Even more importantly, the particular traffic law has been made for a “common good” reason, so the driver operating under the influence of hyperindividualism is flaunting the concern for the common good that undergirds the law.
  • Similarly, texting or answering emails while driving – even when stopped at a stop light – is not only illegal in some jurisdictions, and dangerous, but a further example of hyperindividualism. The behavior not only potentially puts others in danger but also signals that the individual is only thinking of him- or herself and his or her own needs, not the needs or concerns of the wider society (or even the child in the car that might be injured if the driver causes an accident).

Some examples of hyperindividualism that might impact us socially and politically:

  • The American antipathy toward taxation can be viewed as hyperindividualistic. As we saw in many earlier discussions, it is generally through fair, progressive taxation that our peer nations have become significantly better than the US on almost all quality-of-life measures. We Americans want – hyperindividualistically – to keep as much of our wealth as we can, despite that fact that dozens of countries around the world have found creative, sustainable ways to “redistribute” wealth so that it helps the vast majority of its people, not just the top one percent.
  • The over-reliance on the automobile and the chronic underfunding of public transportation (since World War II) is hyperindividualistic and has does immeasurable damage, over time, to people in our country who cannot afford cars and/or cannot reliably or inexpensively travel to their jobs. By contrast, the excellent public transportation throughout Europe and in many other countries promotes the common good, reduces poverty, is environmentally sustainable and attributes to citizen happiness.
  • The view that a college education is nearly essential to a higher income, and focusing the goal of education on individual financial success as opposed to citizen formation, can be seen as hyperindividualistic. The focus on the success of the individual rather than on how the individual can contribute to society as a responsible citizen is a dangerous trend.
  • Our national obsession with financial success is hyperindividualistic in that it values money and the accumulation of money over the use of money and wealth for the betterment of the populace. th[9] That is, when we accumulate wealth primarily for ourselves, our families and our descendants and ascribe value to that accumulation as “success” we are not viewing wealth as a social good – something that can be used to provide services and infrastructure to all citizens, not just a few – but as an individual character trait. Many would say that the American character trait of “successful” based on the accumulation of wealth is distorted at best.
  • The attitude that righting previous social wrongs toward people of color, by programs such as affirmative action, is a “special interest” that is bringing down our country is hyperindividualistic. This attitude elevates the well-being of the individual majority person (often a straight white male) over against the well-being of millions of American citizens who have experienced deep, longstanding discrimination and oppression.

Hyperindividualism also has the insidious result of putting the onus for solving problems always on the individual and not on workable structures, systems and processes:

  • Drugs. As we saw with the recent EpiPen crisis (and earlier with the Daraprim situation), it is up to American individuals to fight pharmaceutical companies when they act outrageously on behalf of their bottom line and put millions of lives at stake. In most other advanced nations, laws empower governments to keep prices down and protect the public. That is, dealing with this issue communally and legislatively rather than hyperindividualistically is infinitely more ethical, humane and practical.
  • Health care. We Americans have to constantly navigate our own health care. ah_haWe have to know about deductibles, co-pays, what is and is not covered by our insurance (if we have insurance…), and on and on. In a less hyperindividualistic society (like our Western peer nations), most of these concerns would largely disappear – and costs would go down dramatically.
  • Retirement. We have discussed the disastrous effects of the erosion of pensions, of income inequality and of the rise of individual retirement programs on the quality of life of millions of Americans. As we noted in that earlier post, retirement experts put nearly the entire onus for retirement savings on individual Americans. Sadly, even Americans who have historically inhabited the middle class have felt the pinch more and more over the past 40 years (not just since the Great Recession). The dollar does not go nearly as far as it did in the 1970s, so Americans have been largely unable to save enough to ensure a comfortable retirement.  Looking at retirement differently – from the perspective of the common good rather than from that of the individual American – is what other advanced nations have done, with great success.
  • Violence. As has been the case for decades, we in the US are surrounded on all sides by violence, violent images, and violent speech (remember that we are far and away the most violent of the advanced nations). In this era of 24/7 social media, the pounding is even more incessant. Pundits and commentators who are asked how to control violence and shield our children consistently resort to directing the responsibility back to us, resulting in yet more anxiety, concerns and worries. In a less hyperindivisualistic society, one whose citizens think and behave with the entire culture in mind, priority would be placed on creating structures and laws that make violence not only less possible but also less appealing as a way to solve problems.

We have become so accustomed to some of these hyperindividualistic traits that we may not be able to recognize them or see how detrimental they are to our society. They may be so ingrained in our national DNA that we cannot face them without feeling somehow inauthentic or unpatriotic. For the health of our nation and on behalf of future generations, however, it is vital that we begin to recognize the signs of an excessive, unhealthy form of individualism, question it, and start moving toward a new, more communal ethos.