Monday, April 28, 2003

Why we are so Different

Tibor R. Machan

When I speak of America’s culture and political system, I have in mind what distinguishes these from the rest of the world’s and from much of human history’s cultures. There is, of course, a lot here that is no different from everywhere else, some great, some OK, and some pretty bad.
But what America has more of than most other places is human liberty. Sure, not all have it in sufficient abundance. Other countries actually have more in certain areas—e.g., in much of Europe you are free to smoke and use drugs, and leave stores open late at night. All in all, however, there is much more freedom in American than elsewhere.
This is vital because freedom is a prerequisite of morality, of acting ethically—people aren’t morally good when they are forced to behave well, however eager some are to make us all good. It is simply an impossible task.
Also, freedom is necessary for our individuality to flourish. In many societies and periods of history the reigning idea is “one size fits all.” Even the greatest thinkers have made this terrible mistake of thinking that one kind of life is best—even healthy—for everyone. It is from this that we got communism, fascism, totalitarianism and other regimes where the objective has been and is to make everyone conform to one vision of human excellence. But no such vision can possibly work because we are unique in the living world in being essentially individuals. Yes, we are social beings, too, but this side of us may not violate our individuality if our human nature is to be respected, honored.
What I am saying here is actually not tough to prove. Just look around you and notice how many decent people are quite different. Some are adventurous, some not, some are loners, some are gregarious, some introverted and some extra—the list could go on and on. Our goals, talents, tastes, and personalities are highly varied, yet oh so human. This is what individualism acknowledges—that we matter as individuals, not as parts of some greater whole. No one can be replaced as the individual who he or she is, and we all know this at least implicitly.
Now in America this is more or less consistently understood. And the price we pay for it is that we realize that what others do, for better or for worse, is something over which they are to have the final say however much it may displease the rest of us. The great cost of individualism is also its great benefit: an enormous variety of ways to live both well and badly.
In America this idea is pretty much accepted, at least at the gut level, even while many people bellyache about it endlessly. All sorts of pressure groups want to have everyone conform to their agendas, to their priorities, yet even as they do this they pretty much accept individualism in many areas of their lives. Such are the contradictions of our culture.
Those of other cultures, however, tend to be more severe. In most places the individualist idea hasn’t sunk in despite its evidence all around. The major source of all the diversity across the globe is nothing other than that people are individuals, apart from whatever else they may be. They have given rise to innumerable varieties of practices, traditions, philosophies, religions, styles of art, special sciences, and customs of food and dress.
What makes America quite irksome to many is that it was designed to accommodate a great deal of human variety; so, it cannot in all honesty offer any kind of utopian, one-size-fits-all vision of social life. With all this variety there is little hope for getting all people to march to the same drummer, to follow the lead of just one guru—or even just one variety of fitness trainer.
And that cannot but annoy those around the globe who want to continue to rule people along such lines.

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