A curious feeling of discomfort has been welling in me ever since I arrived at Yale. Before you ask, it is not colon troubles, my doctor assures me. Rather, it is the discomfort of realizing that the very institution you belong to, love and cherish is symptomatic of a wider problem of modernity. American individualism enriches the well-positioned few but impoverishes the many. Liberalism in the status quo allows too much scope for individual fulfillment at the expense of the general welfare. If human happiness were a landscape, it would be a range of immense mountains surrounded by many more infernal valleys. Yale straddles the pinnacle of such a society: An uncaring, self-seeking clique that prizes higher grades, more internships and higher incomes.
At its heart, the question is about the extent of one’s obligation to realize an equitable society. More specifically, what is the role of an university in achieving this aim? Individualism is a graduated philosophy: The extremist will either assert no obligation or total obligation. Both positions are unreasonable, but our society encourages the former. Think of the Yalie who tries his hardest to get that Goldman Sachs or McKinsey job (for reasons other than effective altruism, of course). Almost no one would bat an eyelid; many might even harbor secret envy. The corporate ladder is the stairway to heaven, and each rung a step closer to financial nirvana.
Not all Yalies are this extreme, but a significant minority embraces this logic. But even milder forms of individualism come up short in producing acceptable outcomes. Taxation is the simplest litmus test of sacrifice for others. This is where America and Yale fail. Taxation, it seems, is an assault on the very freedom of the soil. For the individual, taxation is theft of hard work, while for Yale it is an affront to the sanctity of private enterprise. In the meantime, emptier government coffers mean the poor don’t have access to minimum standard of living. They are deprived of education, health care and a sense of stability essential to human flourishing.
This categorical denial of mild sacrifice was most apparent last year during Connecticut’s attempt to impose taxes on Yale. There was a bewildering array of opposition from within the Yale community. I was most surprised by people who believed in progressive taxation generally but not when applied to Yale. This was the height of champagne socialism: We will pretend to care about liberal issues until the price of our caviar increases. One can protest that they opposed the tax on policy grounds. However, opposition to a specific tax policy does not rule out the general principle of a tax. Rather, most people hid behind some stale argument of the inviolability of nonprofit law. It is a sorry and damning state of affairs when a private university has legal priority over the wellbeing of the marginalized.
More broadly, this explains the rise of populists around the world. It is no wonder that the rally held by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., last year was such a momentous, ebullient gathering on the New Haven Green. Yalies have, for the most part, treated the city with callous indifference, even contempt. A fellow columnist wrote recently about hyperbolic disdain for the Elm City, often framed in exaggerated claims about crime and safety. Backlash against this contempt might account for the hype around Sander’s rally. When the good ol’ senator from Vermont railed against inequality and a careless elite — at a park usually crowded with ignored vagrants, only several hundred yards from the Phelps Gate entrance to the fortress of Old Campus — it was hard not to be ashamed of the University and to sympathize with New Haveners.
For progressives pondering the collapse of the liberal order in the West, the reckless and unabashed pursuit of self-interest should be the main self-criticism. Liberalism is broadly good: There is nothing worthier than someone living life in the way they find most meaningful. But we must admit liberalism’s apparent failings. In pursuing our interests, we naturally infringe upon the interests of others, and the more we care about ourselves the further we fracture society. John Stuart Mill’s harm principle should be more demanding than mere noninterference in others’ lives. Freedom in a harmonious society should be, as Nelson Mandela put it, “to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” There are ways to ameliorate the situation: Compulsory service requirements and higher tax rates are possibilities. But so long as caring for oneself is the highest ideal, liberalism can only be seen as a legitimizing ideology for selfish plunder.
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .