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Posts Tagged ‘Individualism’

When talking with people who dislike free enterprise, it’s quite common that they will admit (at least once I share some of the evidence) that markets produce more prosperity than statism.

But that generally doesn’t convince them. In part, this is because they believe it is wrong to have significant income disparities. Especially if they’ve been snookered into thinking that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor.

To be fair, they generally don’t favor rabid redistribution. And I rarely find anyone who agrees with the twisted IMF prescription to hurt the poor so long as the rich suffer even more. But it bothers them that some people are poor and others are rich.

They’re also skeptical about capitalism because they think it implies the stereotype of a Randian world of ultra individualism where people are so fixated on making money that family and community are afterthoughts.

It is true that individualism-based societies generate much more prosperity than collectivism-based societies, at least according to research from scholars at the University of California at Berkeley.

But does that additional growth come at a cost? Are individualism-based societies cold, harsh, and disconnected?

We have the answer, thanks to a study authored by academics at the University of Tartu in Estonia. They investigated this very issue.

Many social scientists have predicted that one inevitable consequence of modernization is the unlimited growth of individualism, which poses serious threats to the organic unity of society. Others have argued that autonomy and independence are necessary conditions for the development of interpersonal cooperation and social solidarity. We reanalyzed available data on the relationship between individualism-collectivism and social capital within one country (the United States) and across 42 countries.

They considered the hypothesis that individualism corrodes community.

…many theorists have seen the unlimited growth of individualism as a threat to the organic unity between individuals and society. Particularly in France, the concept of individualism has historically carried a negative meaning, denoting individual isolation and social dissolution… For many critics, individualism mainly fosters social atomization, which, in its turn, leads to the disappearance of social solidarity and to the dominance of egoism and distrust. …Thus, in the opinion of communitarians, society should exert a balancing force to excessive individualism, which endangers both individual rights and civic order.

And they also considered the opposite hypothesis, which says that individualism builds social capital.

…individualism does not necessarily jeopardize organic unity and social solidarity. On the contrary, the growth of individuality, autonomy, and self-sufficiency may be perceived as necessary conditions for the development of interpersonal cooperation, mutual dependence, and social solidarity. …normative or ethical individualism even elevates social welfare by promoting trust as well as by encouraging people to work creatively, from which others can benefit…individualism (as it is conceptualized in psychology) is also associated with higher self-esteem and optimism…individualistic cultures are higher on subjective wellbeing…and they report higher levels of quality-of-life… People in individualistic cultures tend to have more acquaintances and friends…they are more extraverted and open to new experience…and they are more trusting and tolerant toward people of different races.

The authors crunched numbers for states and nations.

Here’s what they found in American states.

…states with higher levels of social capital tend to be more individualistic. According to Figure 1, high levels of both community-based social capital and individualism prevail in the states that belong to the Plains region: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Low social capital and collectivistic tendencies, on the other hand, can be found in the area of the former Confederacy, in the states of South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and so on.

As you can see, there’s a clear correlation showing that more individualism is associated with higher levels of social capital.

And the same is true for countries.

Figure 2 shows that the countries with the highest levels of interpersonal trust are the countries most characterized by high levels of individualism: Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States.

As you can see from the chart, interpersonal trust and individualism are correlated.

As is so often the case, it’s interesting to look at the outliers.

The authors note that Utah and Nevada are outlier states. I’m assuming those results may have something to do with Mormonism and gambling, respectively. But maybe there are other explanations.

Looking at nations with high levels of interpersonal trust, China is a big outlier at one end and the Nordic nations are outliers at another end. For what it’s worth, the authors admit that the Chinese results are counterintuitive.

Now let’s circle back and consider policy implications.

I’ve argued that big government undermines charity, it undermines civil society, and that it undermines societal capital as well.

In a free society, by contrast, people have the ability to strive and prosper in order to have the time and resources to enjoy the things – such as family, neighborhood, friendship and community – that are the sources of happiness and contentment.

Though I confess I’m not sure how to best explain this to skeptics.

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There are lots of things that are important for a good life and a prosperous, well-functioning society, including family and community. But something else that belongs on the list, at least if you want more growth, is individualism.

Here’s an excerpt from a new study by two scholars at the University of California at Berkeley.

The model shows that individualism has a dynamic advantage leading to a higher economic growth rate… We provided empirical evidence of a causal effect of individualism on measures of long run growth (output per capita, productivity) and innovation by instrumenting individualism scores with the frequency of blood types which are neutral genetic markers and plausibly satisfy the exclusion restriction. Parents transmit their culture as well as their genes to their children so that genetic data can serve as proxies for vertical cultural transmission and it is unlikely that there is a direct feedback from e.g. output per capita to genes. Since that research shows a powerful effect of culture on long run growth, the key question is what dimensions of culture other than individualism/collectivism matter for long run growth. In this paper, we look at the main existing cross-country measures of culture and analyze their effect on output per capita. We find essentially that only individualism has a robust effect. …We conclude from this exercise that the individualism-collectivism dimension is the central cultural variable that matters for long run growth.

(h/t: Garett Jones)

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