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Covid and the two principles
“Every man for himself” or “All in this together”?
Every person is born into a community; without the care of others, none of us would have survived our first twenty-four hours. Yet as children grow and mature into adults, they increasingly assert their individuality, becoming less dependent on others and more dependent on themselves. They never free themselves entirely of their communities; instead they find a balance between themselves as individuals and the communities in which they live.
Societies can be characterized by where this balance tends to lie for most of their members. Two mottos describe the opposite ends of the spectrum. One of Chaucer’s characters put the individualistic ethos succinctly: “It’s each man for himself,” which often became “It’s every man for himself.” The communitarian ethos was embraced by aphorists from Aesop to Disney in variations of “We’re all in this together.”
Americans historically have preferred positions closer to the “every man for himself” end of the spectrum. Some of this might reflect the immigrant ancestry of most Americans, for at a critical moment of life, each immigrant made a conscious decision to leave the community of his or her birth and place self-interest above the interest of that community.
Some of it doubtless reflects the low population density of much of America during much of American history. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the western frontier of comparatively open—and inexpensive—land offered an escape to those who found the demands of community in the East too onerous to bear. It’s no coincidence that the most characteristic icon in American national culture is the cowboy, pictured as sitting astride his horse, alone against the horizon.
The preferred balance point has shifted at times in American history. When the country has been at war, the demands of the community have gained ground, up to and including conscription—the dragooning of the individual into the military service of the community. And when the wars have ended, individualism has reasserted itself.
Yet not even war causes the balance points to shift in lockstep. Every American war has had its resisters. Tens of thousands of American loyalists refused to break with Britain during the Revolutionary War; foes of the Civil War draft rioted lethally for days in New York City. In general, though, Americans have tolerated greater infringement on their individualism during wartime than during peace.
Various other countries have been consistently closer to the “all in this together” end of the spectrum. Often this appears in societal norms and expectations. Traditional cultures of East Asia, for example, sometimes elevated respect for elders to a kind of veneration that, among other things, could make emigration difficult, lest the family shrines go untended.
At times the communitarian ethos served as cause—or rationalization—for despotic governments. Authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, Japan and elsewhere cited the threat from foreign enemies as requiring the subordination of individual rights to the common defense. The Castro regime in Cuba employed the United States as a bogey to justify six decades of suppressing individual freedoms.
But countries with despotic regimes weren’t the only places where communitarian values informed politics. The Scandinavian countries were paid-up members of the club of democracies, and they supported social welfare programs—and levels of taxation—most Americans would have found intolerable.
The Scandinavian experience suggested another explanation for differences in positioning on the individualism-communitarianism spectrum. People in countries that are ethnically and culturally homogeneous seem to have an easier time conceiving of their fellow citizens as worthy subjects for “all in this together” treatment. China, Japan and Korea are similar to the Scandinavian countries in this regard.
America, by contrast, is considerably more diverse. And while many Americans celebrate their country’s diversity, for other Americans—and maybe for some of these, too—diversity apparently gets in the way of extending fellow-feeling to different-looking and different-acting people.
Observers of American history, noting that war has brought the country together in the past, have looked for crises short of war to do some of the same thing. Philosopher William James in the early twentieth century thought the “moral equivalent of war” might have a salutary effect in resolving the nation’s problems. Various presidents have declared war on poverty (LBJ), war on drugs (Nixon) and war on terrorism (George W. Bush), with checkered results.
More than a few Americans hoped the country would pull together to battle covid-19. Perhaps with a different president than Donald Trump in office at the outset of the pandemic, the “all in this together” approach might have predominated. But Trump and others quickly politicized the issue, and the nation’s response bifurcated. In one camp were the advocates of masks, social distancing and vaccines, who argued that such inconvenience as these measures entailed were outweighed by the greater good of their effects on the country as a whole. In the other camp were the opponents of masks and the anti-vaxxers, who stood on their rights as individuals.
Both stances were in the American tradition, with the vaxxers deeming covid a collective crisis comparable to war, and the anti-vaxxers thinking it a bother but nothing worth sacrificing individual sovereignty over. Each side denounced the other; the vaxxers called the antis selfish know-nothings, and the antis dubbed the vaxxers socialist tyrants. Government took both sides of the issue: some offices and agencies mandated masks and vaccinations, and others forbade mandates. Courts split on allowing or forbidding mandates.
Party affiliation predicted attitudes on covid, but not perfectly. Democratic states, already closer to the “all in this together” end of the spectrum, showed higher rates of vaccination and masking; Republican “every man for himself” states showed lower. Yet some of the most ardent anti-vaxxers could be found in the natural-foods, anti-GMO wing of the liberal left.
The dividing line shifted somewhat during the course of the pandemic. And in doing so it recapitulated a longer-term shift in the balance point between the communitarians and the individualists in America. The latter never surrendered their rhetoric of self-sufficiency, but over time they grew accustomed to the practical solutions of the communitarians, which had gained ground as America’s population density increased and the economy grew more interconnected.
In the 1930s the individualists opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security system as a fatal first step toward communism, but soon they were cashing pension checks like everyone else. In the 1960s they maligned Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare scheme as socialist medicine, but as they grew older they discovered that guaranteed health care wasn’t such a bad idea after all. In 2010 they tried to foil Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but once they got back in power they let some of its most important provisions stand. In the case of covid, the ranks of the anti-vaxxers grew less numerous as they saw their unvaccinated neighbors get sick and their vaccinated ones suffer no ill consequences of the jab.
The vaccine converts didn’t necessarily abandon their every-man-for-himself philosophy. Like the earlier converts to Social Security and Medicare, they simply carved out an exception. That
they were able to maintain this ambivalent position revealed an underlying truth about the all-in-this-together approach: it delivers benefits even to those who don’t like to admit it works.