Volunteerism and Individualism

The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting two primary American values—volunteerism and individualism.

In the 1830’s French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States and wrote the famous book, Democracy in America. One of his observations was the tendency of Americans to form volunteer associations to accomplish community and societal goals, a practice he thought important for a democratic society.

Despite declining levels of civic engagement, volunteering is a big deal in America. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 62.6 million Americans volunteered in 2015, with a quarter of Americans over 16 participating.

There are many ways to define individualism, but most revolve around Merriam Webster’s definition: it is the belief that the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society or group. That is the definition I will use here.

Fortified with social Darwinism (i.e., the survival of the fittest), American “rugged individualism” become expressed as personal freedom, capitalism, and limited government.

Individualism, the “I” orientation, is opposed to collectivism, a “We” orientation.

One scholar and his team measured individualism across many countries. The United States has the highest rating on individualism at .91. Several other countries include Canada (.80), France (.71), Germany (.67), and Japan (.46).

Volunteerism is evident every day with the bravery and commitment to duty of physicians and nurses at hospitals overrun with COVID-19 patients. They work long hours in dangerous circumstances, many to the point of mental as well as physical exhaustion.

Heroically, thousands of medical personnel have come out of retirement to assist in New York, and many others have come from across the country. First responders, frontline workers themselves, stand and applaud medical personnel, who are traumatized but soldiering on.

Yes, we see hero volunteers, but we can also see manifestations of individualism at work. For example, the country with the highest individualism rating, the United States, has a for-profit health care system that profits on disease and illness.

Other industrialized countries have a public health system. Consequently, they could provide testing for the virus and do so without additional cost to citizens, and citizens get medical care if needed. In contrast, in the US, many citizens would not take costly tests, even if available, until Congresswoman Katie Porter forced the CDC Director to declare them free.

The competition between states and between states and the federal government for medical equipment and supplies is absurdly comical; however, it makes the individualistic way we are organized and how we work very clear.

You may say, correctly, that this would not happen under competent leadership at the top. However, in some instances, a competent president would be leading an administration trying to make for up for the lack of “we-ness.”

It should be clear now that a strong federal government is needed, certainly in times like these.

The rabid “limited government” crowd wants to limit government so much that it is small enough to be “drowned in a bathtub.” Well, they have gotten their wish in some instances with Trump, who has not filled many top offices, making them less able to do their work.

The other side of the making government smaller project is assisting businesses. The ultimate perversion of that idea in this crisis is Project Airbridge, a public-private partnership that brings personal protective equipment (PPE) from abroad. Half of the imports go to FEMA and the other half to private businesses to distribute as they do their regular imports and sales. Why are they involved? It seems that they are there to make a profit, similar to how banks make profits on student loans and suffer no risk, as the federal government is the “insurer.”

Further, the wealthiest country in the world, an “I” country, is providing welfare for the rich (with CARES bill) and little for the poor. They are giving one-time payments of $1,200 to all citizens earning less than $75,000, while our neighbor Canada, a “we” country, is providing each of their citizens $2,000 a month for four months if they lost their job due to the virus.

As we applaud volunteer efforts, we must be mindful of the fact that policies and practices influenced by our individualism creed are causing many of the problems that create a need for volunteers.