|Number 595||March 18, 2016|
I promised a couple of issues ago to write a bit about how the emphasis on Individualism in the U.S. philosophical tradition distorts our thinking. In this issue I fulfill that promise.
It's actually a bigger and more complex issue than I thought, which I mention for two reasons:
Shortly after I mail out this issue of the Notes, I am going in for a fairly major surgery, from which I'll be recuperating for a while, and I'm not sure how long. It could just be a couple of weeks, but it could be longer. So I'm alerting all of you alert readers that it may be a while before the second in this series on Individualism comes your way. Also, I likely won't be answering email or regular mail for a while, so forgive me. I do appreciate hearing from you, and I will get back to you. I'm just not sure when.
Not to be mysterious, the surgery is being undertaken to correct a lifelong defect in my spine, and once the recuperation is over, I should be in better shape than I have been for a long time. So, it's good news, but I'll be out of commission for a while. Thanks for your patience!
Here's to healing!
In a 2004 essay called Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness, philosopher Charles W. Mills argues that "current debates about 'racism' are hindered by the fact that the term is used in ... a confusingly diverse range of ways." In the process of making his argument, Mills explains why it might be helpful to replace the familiar concept of "racism" with a more complex (and more accurate, as he argues) concept of "white supremacy":
"The dominant interpretation of white racism in the white population is probably individual beliefs about innate nonwhite (particularly black) biological inferiority, and individual hostility toward people of color (especially blacks). Given this conception, most whites think of themselves as nonracist—one positive thing about the present is that nobody wants to be a racist, though this has also motivated a shift in how the term is defined—while continuing to hold antiblack stereotypes. But in any case, with the decline in overt racism in the white population, the real issue for a long time has not been individual racism but, far more important, the reproduction of white advantage and black disadvantage through the workings of racialized social structures. The idea of white supremacy is intended, in part, to capture the crucial reality that the normal workings of the social system continue to disadvantage blacks in large measure independently of racist feeling. Insofar as ... our attention as philosophers concerned about justice is supposed to be on the 'basic structure' of society and its workings, the concept of 'white supremacy' then forces us to confront the possibility that the basic structure is itself systemically unjust. Corrective measures to end racial injustice would thus need to begin here."
Second "Quote" of the Week: The Master of Budgets
House Republicans unveiled their 2017 federal budget Tuesday, which was the subject of a press conference by Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who "made his name as a master of budgets," according to the New York Times. Ryan acknowledged the possibility that "Republicans would fail to reach an agreement" on a budget, since the "conservative" alliance of Representatives calling itself the "Freedom Caucus" (there are 42 of them!) is opposed to any and all budget proposals so far put forward. In that context, Mr. Ryan was heard to utter this rather hilarious comment:
"We want to pass a budget. We believe it's very important for budgeting reasons."
The headline on the front page of my local newspaper on March 9th read, "Pentagon Offers Plan to Cripple ISIS in Libya With Airstrikes." The article, reported by the NY Times, began like this: "The Pentagon has presented the White House with the most detailed set of military options yet for attacking the growing Islamic State threat in Libya, including a range of potential airstrikes against training camps, command centers, munitions depots and other militant targets."
For those who think that this makes some kind of sense, here are a few excerpts from an Associated Press (AP) story that appeared on page 4 of that same day's newspaper. The story was prompted by a U.S. airstrike against a different "terror" group—Somalia's al-Shabab—which took place over the weekend. The headline read, "Despite U.S. Strikes, Somali Extremist Group Has Proven to be Resilient."
The lead paragraph: "By U.S. accounts, it was a devastating airstrike against Islamic militants in Somalia, with more than 150 fighters killed in a training camp. But the weekend attack probably won't diminish al-Shabab's ability to continue a wave of bloodshed." (Naturally, the Pentagon "said they did not believe there were any civilian casualties," and I couldn't find any reports of anybody in the U.S. press asking any Somalians who was killed.)
The AP continues: "Previous U.S. airstrikes have killed al-Shabab leaders, including Ahmed Abdi Godane, who had been the group's top commander, in 2014. And yet the group, far from being vanquished, came back with ferocity. Al-Shabab vowed to avenge Godane's death and later carried out a series of attacks in Mogadishu and in neighboring Kenya."
The article ends with a comment by an analyst from a corporate "intelligence company," who remarks that "Further U.S. airstrikes ... are unlikely to thwart al-Shabab's attacks around Mogadishu," and, in fact, "Attacks in and around Mogadishu on individuals or groups associated with the government are likely to intensify."
The Individualistic Analysis
The "War on Terrorism" is based on the Individualistic idea that "terrorism" is the result of conscious decisions made by hateful individuals. The underlying idea is that there are a certain number of such individuals, and "eliminating" one of them results in one less terrorist. Then, through simple arithmetic, the elimination of all of them will result in a victory over the terrorists.
Lest it seem like I'm oversimplifying the thinking here, recall the fateful speech by then-President George W. Bush, speaking to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, in the wake of the terror attacks on New York and Washington DC. The President said that "Our war on terror ... will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated," an absurd claim at the time that seems only more absurd with the passing years. Then, just three months ago, on December 6th, 2015, in the wake of the of the mass shooting and attempted bombing in San Bernardino, President Obama channeled George W. Bush, pledging that "We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us."
While an Individualistic analysis relies on simple subtraction (Killing one terrorist = one less terrorist), a systems analysis recognizes that the phenomenon of terrorism arises from a complex set of factors. A systems approach even lets us consider the possibility that the decision to wage war on "terrorism" may actually increase the incidence of terrorism. The Associated Press story cited above seems to acknowledge this possibility, noting that the U.S. attacks "probably won't diminish" the power of al-Shabab and "are unlikely to thwart" future attacks. Yet the headline reads "Despite U.S. Strikes, Somali Extremist Group Has Proven to be Resilient." But what if that resilience is not "despite" U.S. strikes, but because of them? Suddenly our simple subtraction doesn't work. Instead of reducing the number of perpetrators of terror, in the wake of U.S. attacks the targeted group "comes back with ferocity."
Using an Individualistic approach, perpetrators of terror are seen as the problem, and one that can be eliminated. That's the simple arithmetic. A Systems approach tells us that the perpetrators are the symptom of something. And understanding the nature of that "something" should be our primary concern because (as with any problem) an understanding of what gives rise to the symptoms allows us to treat the root cause. See this week's "Quote" of the Week, which makes the same point in a different context. (I actually discussed this dynamic in some depth back in 2001, in an essay called "Physical Health and Social Health." If you want to visit the Nygaard Notes archives, it appeared in NN #117, July 20, 2001.)
Just as the overuse of antibiotics breeds "superbugs"—bacteria that antibiotics cannot kill—so the overuse of military force has bred "super-enemies" that military force cannot control. Although the U.S. military can kill individuals—and have such killings reported as "victories"—such an Individualistic approach doesn't address the root causes of terror, and most likely makes it worse. History can teach us things, if we only can let go of our traditional ways of thinking about them. One traditional way of thinking is Individualism. Let's let go of it.
There are two very important ways that a belief in Individualism distorts our thinking about health and health care in the United States. It distorts both our thinking about treatment of illness and it distorts our thinking about prevention of illness. First I'll talk about treatment.
In the early days of the health exchange set up in Minnesota as a part of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), a series of ads were produced aimed at encouraging people to purchase health insurance. The slogan was "95% of Minnesotans now have health insurance. 100% need it." If we accept the idea that access to health care is the issue here—and I think that's what most people do think—then we can see that zero percent of Minnesotans need health insurance. Insurance is, after all, just one way of helping people to get health care, which is what 100% of people actually need. Yet the entire Affordable Care Act is based on the Individualistic premise that our goal is to get every individual to choose to acquire insurance. So we offer subsidies, or we penalize people who choose not to get insurance. People on the right are infuriated because they don't think the government should tell them what to do. People on the left are infuriated because such a system allows many people to fall through the cracks.
If we think about health as a social issue, rather than as an individual issue, solutions immediately appear.
When it comes to health care, there are things that we know and things that we do not know. What we know is aggregate numbers. That is, we know (roughly) how many people will have heart attacks this year. We know how many people will need surgery, how many will need prescription drugs, and how many will need physical therapy. What we don't know—and really cannot know—is which specific people will need any of these things. That is to say that we know the SOCIAL realities of health needs in the United States, but none of us know the INDIVIDUAL choices that will be facing us.
So, if we were to set up a health care system based on what we actually know, hopefully we would decide to set up a SOCIAL program in which we would set aside an aggregate sum sufficient to pay for the overall costs of health care for the group as a whole. We could do this by socializing the entire care system, or we could compromise and set up a "single-payer" system. Either way, there would be no mandates, no coercion, no infringement upon anyone's liberties. Everyone would receive the health care they need, by virtue of being a human being, and everyone would chip in to help pay for it. This would actually be a form of insurance, but it would be social insurance rather than individual insurance.
As long as we approach the problem of access to health care as a collection of individual decisions to get insurance, we'll never get to where we want to be. The solution is to stop thinking Individualistically, and to begin to think Systems.
The Illusion of Control
There's another layer of Individualism that distorts our thinking about health in even deeper ways. And that is the deeply-held idea that individuals have control over their health and wellness. Individualistic thinking tells us that, if we only "take care of ourselves," we can prevent serious illness. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Et cetera.
I'm not denying that a healthy lifestyle can and does increase one's chances of avoiding serious illness. But Individualistic thinking makes it difficult to see that there are many things that negatively affect our health that are far beyond the control of any individual.
For example, the World Health Organization reported this week that "An estimated 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012 – nearly 1 in 4 of total global deaths, according to new estimates from WHO. Environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change, and ultraviolet radiation, contribute to more than 100 diseases and injuries. Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, points out the obvious: "If countries do not take actions to make environments where people live and work healthy, millions will continue to become ill and die too young."
This news failed to make a single front page, to my knowledge. And I think an Individualistic way of thinking is at least partly to blame.
One aspect of the set of ideas that I am calling Individualism is the Just World Theory, according to which "[humans] are psychologically inclined to think that the world is fair, and that people deserve their happiness and their suffering." Since the phenomenon of air pollution is not "fair," it's difficult for people to know what to do with it. Who's to blame here? Who is the "bad guy"? A bad guy who kills 5 people is front-page, top-of-the-hour news. Meanwhile, the news that interlocking systems are operating at a global level to produce pollution that kills 34,000 people every day barely makes the news. Why? It's partly because there's no readily-identifiable bad guy. There's also a bias in the news towards visual spectacle, which leads news organizations and social media to focus on dramatic individual events and neglect structural, institutional forces that are infinitely more worthy of our attention.
Although we say that "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," most of our health-related spending is aimed at finding cures, while we spend relatively little on prevention. And the reason is that we are socialized to think Individualistically about health and illness. So we continually fail to grasp some fundamental realities.
The media recently reported on the arrest of the Mexican drug "kingpin," Joaquín Guzmán Loera, popularly known as El Chapo. Said to be "among the richest drug dealers in history," El Chapo was the head of the famous Sinaloa Cartel, an organized crime syndicate that traffics drugs into the United States. The arrest of El Chapo by Mexican authorities made headlines around the world, and it was reported as a "good news" story, for the most part. The assumption underlying the reports is that the arrest of the head of this criminal drug syndicate will have some sort of positive effect on something.
What positive impact would that be? Will it reduce drug use and addiction? Not likely. In a recent interview with El Chapo, conducted by Sean Penn (!) and published in Rolling Stone magazine, Penn asks, "Do you think it is true you are responsible for the high level of drug addiction in the world?" And El Chapo replies with the obvious response: "No, that is false, because the day I don't exist, [drug addiction] is not going to decrease in any way at all."
That's not just his opinion. TIME Magazine makes the key point about the "remove the kingpin" strategy in their January 21 edition: "Pablo Escobar, who preceded El Chapo as the most notorious [drug] kingpin, died in 1993 with no visible impact on drug availability in the U.S. El Chapo himself was captured and imprisoned in 1993, but his brother ran the drug empire in his place. Throughout this period, drugs like cocaine and heroin became cheaper and cheaper." And overall rate of drug use in the U.S. was higher at the end of the 1990s than it was when Escobar was operating in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, El Chapo escaped, was re-arrested, and escaped again before his recent re-arrest. Nothing changed during these twenty years.
[I first wrote about this insane dynamic in 1999, in Nygaard Notes #51, in an article called "How Not to Fight Drug Addiction." I revisited the subject in 2005, with the article "Colombia: "Not a War Against Drugs".]
This "arrest the kingpins" strategy has long been a central feature of the "War on Drugs," and it is based on an underlying idea that "bad guys" are responsible for drug production and distribution, which in turn results in addiction. The theory, then, is that a removal of the "bad guys" will result in less drug addiction and the violence that often comes with it.
This misguided thinking arises from an adherence to "Methodological Individualism," which you'll recall is the idea that things happen because individuals make them happen, and they make them happen because they want them to happen. So, we have a drug addiction problem because there are bad people who want us to have a drug problem so that they can make money.
There's another way to look at it. And that way is to "think systems."
If we think systems we can still find ill-intentioned people making money off of selling drugs. But they'll be seen not as the source of the problem—as Escobar and El Chapo are not the source of the problem—but rather as simply one part of a complex system. Systems thinking argues that people don't use drugs because bad people make drugs available, but rather that drugs become available when people want (or need) to use them. Once we see things this way, then we stop looking for bad guys, and begin to look at how the system works.
Part of the system that gives us drug use and abuse is the fact that "the desire to alter consciousness periodically is an innate, normal human drive." (Those words are from a cover blurb for the 1972 book "The Natural Mind," by Andrew Weil. Highly recommended!) And one way that people know to alter consciousness is to use psychoactive drugs. If we accept that this is what humans do, then the mission of our "War on Drugs" switches from "ending" drug use to reducing the harm that often results from drug use. Then it's not really a "war" at all.
This approach—once unspeakable in "serious" discussions of drug policy—is gaining adherents all over the map. At the Wall Street Journal, for example.
The Journal takes a "market approach" to drugs, as one might expect. In a recent (February 19th) opinion piece headlined "How Economists Would Wage the War on Drugs," The Journal reminds us of "a fundamental mistake in the war on drugs. Most of the money spent tackling narcotics is directed toward disrupting supply—by uprooting coca bushes, battling cartels, locking up dealers and so on. In fact, focusing on demand would be more effective."
Leave aside for the moment that conducting a "war on drugs" IS the mistake, and listen to the Journal's supply-and-demand argument: "Demand for drugs is inelastic—that is, when prices rise, people cut their consumption relatively little. (Given that most banned drugs are addictive, this isn't surprising.) So even when governments can drive up prices, dealers continue to sell almost as much as they did before—only at higher prices, meaning that the value of the criminal market increases. Reducing demand, by contrast, triggers a fall in both the amount consumed and the price paid, cutting into the criminal market on two fronts.
"Demand-side interventions are not only more effective, they're also considerably cheaper than playing about with helicopters in the Andes. A dollar spent on drug education in U.S. schools cuts cocaine consumption by twice as much as spending that dollar on reducing supply in South America; spending it on treatment for addicts reduces it by 10 times as much. Rehab programs for prescription-painkiller users might seem costly, but they prevent those people from slipping into the colossally more expensive problem of heroin addiction. Where demand cannot be dampened, it can be redirected toward a legal source, as a few U.S. states have done with marijuana—a development that has inflicted bigger losses on the cartels than any supply-disruption policy."
The fact that we continue to wage a "War on Drugs" is a very good example of how Individualistic thinking produces responses that don't solve the problem. The adherence to Methodological Individualism leads us to see "bad guys" as the problem, when in fact they are a symptom of the problem. It's very hard to solve a problem when we use a way of thinking that won't let us understand where the problem comes from. Let's start thinking Systems.