Sunday, June 24, 2012

Collectivism Vs. Individualism

At the heart of our deeply divided country, between those on the left and those on the right, is the debate over economics and the role of government, and collectivism versus individualism. I lean towards the left in most social and economic issues, so I am generally for collectivism. In a modern liberal democracy, we of course are going to have elements of both in our society, but many of those on the right are simply taking the Ayn Rand-ian philosophy of individualism to its extreme.

Conservatives want a sink or swim economy, where you either succeed with what you've got, or you fail. And if you fail from being a victim of your own circumstance, don't expect government to offer any assistance. That's not government's role according to proponents of individualism. They don't support government money used to pay for people's educations. I've always felt education is an investment into the future. If someone poor is helped to receive a college education, they can get a better job, spend more money into the economy and ultimately pay more taxes. Conservatives say no. None of their hard earned income should be taxed and sent to those who cannot afford higher education. But education is not government cheese, it is not a welfare check, it is the future of this country. When we cease to graduate scientists and engineers at rates comparable to other developing countries, we cease being a superpower. The country that masters science, masters the world. Conservatives drive me sick on this point, because they do not recognize how important it is for our future that we have Americans educated in skilled professions, particularly in math and science.

Conservatives are scared of a nanny state where there is a permanent underclass that receives subsidies from the government and becomes accustomed to it, and loses motivation to better themselves. I share this worry with them, and I too fear that some people get far too comfortable with handouts. Welfare reform was the right thing to do. If you are getting money from the government, you should be forced to get off your ass and work. Government aide should be temporary, but it should exist. People who face hard times who are not lifelong welfare recipients need a little boost while in transition. This is collectivism at its finest. It suited our hunter-gatherer ancestors very well and enabled our species to conquer the world. Collectivism is at the heart of our socio-biologocal evolution, and as such, this is a great justification for its continuation. A society that helps those who are down, has a better chance of prospering in the long run.

Ironically, religious conservatives usually in favor of individualism, neglect the fact that Christianity's philosophy is basically collectivism. But over the years the Christianity of the U.S. has become a sort of Christian Capitalism. From the pulpits across this nation, pastors preach virtue in materialism. They say Jesus wants them to have the huge house, the luxury cars, the jewelry, and all the latest electronics. But Jesus said no such thing and even preached against materialism. Conservatives and liberals alike all know that if Jesus's philosophy were to be practiced literally, the world's economy would collapse.

So as an atheist, and a left-leaning thinker on economics, I support collectivism with a healthy dose of individualism where necessary. Collectivism, when done properly, allows more people to enter and stay in the middle class than does individualism. Individualism allows a smaller number of people to get fabulously wealthy, while most of the rest of the middle class, either stays flat in terms of economic growth, or slips into poverty. Ultimately, larger and stronger middle class is what makes this country a great and prosperous nation.

For example, imagine 10,000 middle class people, making $50,000 each. Together, their combined wealth is five hundred million dollars. Now imagine 25 very wealthy people, that each have 20 million dollars. Their combined wealth is also five hundred million dollars. Looking at this from an economics perspective, what would be best for our economy? The 10,000 middle class people might buy 10,000 cars, or if some are married, they might have two cars for their household, as many American families do. So let's say the rate if buying cars is 1.5, so about half of them have 2 cars and the other half don't. That's 15,000 cars they've purchased. Compare this with the 25 wealthy folks, who each have 20 million dollars. If this group of affluent people wanted to purchase cars they are unlikely to buy 15,000 cars as the other group has. That would be 600 cars for each of them. Even the most wealthy in our society do not buy 600 cars unless they are a car collector and enthusiast. They might have 5 or 10 cars that they use for various purposes at most. So together, using the high number, they are likely to buy 250 cars, compared with the middle class group that bought 15,000 cars. So if you were a car maker, what group would be best for you.

This example shows how detrimental it is to our society economically, when most of the wealth is increasingly  concentrated towards the top percentages of income earners. The wealthy are not going to carry our economy on their backs because of the simple fact that for all their purchasing power, they buy a smaller number of items when compared to a larger middle class. So it is best to have a larger middle class and to have wealth spread out more, rather than having it being concentrated at the very top. Conservative economic policies, like trickle down economics, and individualism, lead to and encourage the concentration of larger amounts of wealth at the very top. And this is why conservative economic policies, are ruining our economy and country. 

The Human Condition Part 3

With my love of philosophy, I've gotten deeper into Buddhism's philosophy with the help of its many interpreters. Alan Watts made an excellent video, capturing in image and sound some of the brilliant interpretation's of the Buddha, in particular meditation. As Buddhism's main practice, meditation has always intrigued me, but also intimidated me. I have tried several times to properly meditate, but each time I feel that I have failed miserably. I have never reached that highly coveted state of nirvana that the Buddha is said to have reached while in deep meditation under the Bodhi tree.

Meditation bemuses me. I am learning about it more and more to peel away its mysteries. According to its many experienced practitioners, it is to be conducted while in a calm tranquil environment, with slow, rhythmic breathing. Your mind should acknowledge the present, while the past should remain a distant memory. The past should no longer exist. The future shouldn't either. Your body is suppose to simply, be. Let the mind flow freely. Thoughts that enter the mind should be considered noise, like the sounds from nature. Reflect.

It is this part that I usually have such an issue with. Whenever I meditate, I cannot stop thinking about my past, and worrying about the future. It consumes me to such a degree that all hopes for even the lowest slopes of enlightenment are thwarted. It is something I am working on, along with my problem controlling my breathing. With meditation, I hope to reach a state of tranquility. I hope to reflect on my existence in a new light. All the petty issues that are bothering me, that cause me so much stress in my day-to-day life, I hope will become washed away, if even for a moment.  But for the long term, seeing past events in a new light can at least alleviate the negative effects it has on one's peace of mind.

This is an issue that cuts right to the heart of what often troubles me. How do I deal with my problems in life? How do I deal with people I do not like? How do I deal with situations that annoy me? Simple reinterpretation on past events is not the long term solution for me. Change needs to be made for dealing with these same problems for the future, so that the past is not repeated. I'm not sure if meditation is is even the solution for addressing such problems. Maybe it is not. If I can successfully meditate, perhaps that will change my behavior towards my problems in the future.

Philosophically, there are many parallels between Buddhism and stoicism. They both seek to alleviate suffering by the removal of desire, which they claim is the cause of suffering in the first place. To detach ones self from desire is no easy feat. Some desire can be very healthy and is the motivation of doing good. But other desires are indeed a product of ego driven narcissism. So there are healthy desires and unhealthy desires, but there is desire, and even the Dalia Lama acknowledges this fact. I too, am driven by such selfish desires at times. If I could purge myself as much as possible of the unhealthy desires that consume me, that lead to such internal suffering when not fulfilled, perhaps I could better my overall peace of mind.

But how does one simply release their desires? As a man I often pay close attention to the social hierarchy when with other men. Many men want to be the alpha male, and although I don't desire it always, I do get jealous and angry when another man assumes that role. At work I often settle for less than I could be in terms of social status, because I don't assert myself as vulgar as I normally do. So at work I basically play the role of the quiet but hardworking cubicle dweller. About half of the people I work with I do not get along with at all. My inability to connect with others is another source of mental suffering. When I am unable to connect with others, and am often forced into the role of the outsider, it is then that I am most depressed. As I have written, we are social creatures, and our status amongst our peers is deeply important to us.

But if I could care less for what others think of me, then my status within my peers wouldn't bother me. However, it is not easy to simply just not care about my interpersonal relationships. This attention to social status has been enforced by millions of years of evolution, and a 2,500 year old philosophy may be no match against it. I think that a calm and slow release of my unhealthy desires can be something achievable, with or without the help of meditation.

I am not immune to desires of violence towards others. I have, like we all do, fantasies of killing and torturing those I despise. I recognize this as a part of being human, perhaps a remnant from our evolutionary past, but something I wish to suppress. I know it is wrong to kill those you feel have wronged you, and a society that practices or allowed that would be a mess. It is unlikely that I will ever kill because of my sense of morality and my non violent nature, but as if written before, I think anyone is capable of murder if put under the right circumstances.

Meditation as a tool for bettering one's life, through the acceptance of what is, and the alleviation of one's desires, which leads to suffering, is something I am looking into further. I think a change of one's lifestyle and surroundings is ultimately what can alleviate suffering best, but when that is not immediately possible, meditation and careful reflection may be the best remedy.


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