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JENKINS: Individualism versus collectivism is at heart of policy debates

Photo by Ginny Sampson 

Photo by Ginny Sampson 

For as long as anyone can remember, the political left and right in this country have been at each other’s throats. Yet every new candidate that bursts onto the national scene believes he or she is going to be the one who finally brings them together.

George W. Bush claimed to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Hillary Clinton insisted that “it takes a village.” Barack Obama promised “hope and change.” None of them made any difference. We’re as divided now as we’ve ever been, if not more.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Recent history has certainly shown that our government is least likely to do actual harm when one party holds the presidency and the other controls Congress.

Whether political divisions are good or bad, they appear to be inevitable, stemming from the fundamentally different ways in which people see the world.

Some believe that individuals are primarily responsible for their own actions and accountable for their choices. They’re known as conservatives. Others insist that we’re all collectively responsible for each other, and that ultimate accountability falls upon society. Those folks we call liberals.

This basic disagreement is at the heart of nearly all our political discourse.

Take health care. Conservatives think people should be responsible for providing for their own health care, unless they’re legitimately unable to do so. Liberals argue that society is collectively responsible for providing health care to all — even those who engage in high-risk behaviors.

Or consider our different approaches to crime and punishment. Conservatives look at a criminal and see someone who’s made some very poor choices. That person may well be redeemable, but only if he or she makes far different choices moving forward.

Liberals, meanwhile, look at the same criminal and see a failure on the part of society. Consequently, our collective responsibility is to somehow “rehabilitate” that person while at the same time pouring money into social programs designed to mitigate future failures.

The essential problem with liberalism is that, although we should certainly love and care for one another, public policies that punish the many for the actions of the few, or tax the many to pay for the few, simply don’t work in the long run. It’s too easy for those who lack moral fiber to shrug off responsibility for their actions and upkeep, blaming society instead of themselves, convinced the world owes them a living.

Meanwhile, the many eventually tire of their burden and will continue accepting responsibility for the few only under threat of force.

Besides, collectivism has been tried before, under many different guises — feudalism, socialism, communism, fascism. Even though liberals like to style themselves as “progressives,” a return to that hoary philosophy doesn’t represent human progress.

It just takes us back to the bad old days when people didn’t have much individual responsibility — but didn’t have much personal liberty, either.

Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and the author of “Family Man: The Art of Surviving Domestic Tranquility,” available at Books for Less in Buford and on Amazon. Email Rob at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com or visit familymanthebook.com.