For nearly 250 years we allowed slavery to persist on this continent because it formed the backbone of our economy. During World War II we placed Japanese Americans in internment camps in a racist attempt to root out anti-American spies. In the 1960s we brutalized and murdered civil rights activists because we feared integration and Black political enfranchisement. Near the end of the 20th century, we ignored signs of global warming and trimmed social assistance programs for poor Americans in order to keep private profits high and government expenses low. Today, we allow politicians to spread conspiracy theories and threaten the integrity of our democracy so that they can position themselves for presidential runs.
Many of our nation’s most complex social and political decisions have ultimately boiled down to moral judgments, but all too often America has made the wrong call. Our society’s glorification of extreme individualism and competition should bear most of the blame for our profound moral deficiency.
Intense individualism explains our economic crisis and the failure of our proposed solutions.
Our economy is organized such that we are encouraged to compete for a place upon an existing hierarchy of wealth and income. Those who find themselves at or near the bottom of that hierarchy are often left struggling to survive. This fight for economic security has compromised our moral positions and come to underlie our most disturbing cultural debates. All too often we find ourselves fighting over who deserves access to the opportunities that have proven to be conduits to economic privilege: education, jobs and housing. And all too often these debates lead to prejudiced policy decisions.
Many populist Republicans have fallen prey to the appeal of prejudiced politics. They have subjugated and dehumanized people perceived to be stealing economic opportunities, while simultaneously supporting discriminatory policies that falsely promise economic security at the expense of other groups. The politics of the past four years have embodied these views, giving all of us a sobering look at how a hypercompetitive economic system can lead to a dangerous level of cynicism and resentment.
At the same time, many moderate Democrats have convinced themselves that the way to resolve our economic system’s failings is by creating more space in a cramped capitalist system for historically underrepresented groups, with the goal of churning out as many “girlbosses” and examples of “Black excellence” as possible. While these goals are well-intentioned, the problem is not a lack of diversity at the top of the economic ladder — it is that we even have such a brutal and unforgiving ladder in the first place.
What is equally concerning is the effect this intense individualism has had on the politics of social issues. The dire impacts of climate change have been denied, despite overwhelming evidence, because of corporate interests and the fear of losing more factory jobs in the United States. The desire to address racism and discrimination has been met with seething opposition because people conflate uplifting those who have been oppressed with prejudice against dominant groups in America. We continue to refuse to wear masks, even as COVID-19 deaths reach 500,000, under the false pretense of preserving personal liberty. We lament the perceived erosion of the First Amendment and the expansion of cancel culture to give cover to our hateful rhetoric.
I do believe that we need to completely restructure the incentives of our political and economic institutions to place equal value on empathy and collective action as much as personal interest.
But institutions are created by us and the choices we make. Our obsession with self-interest, then, is a fundamentally intrapersonal issue we see in our daily lives. It’s about walking past a homeless person on the sidewalk in New Haven and not batting an eye. It’s about not sharing that job opportunity with your friend because you really want the position. It’s about hosting a maskless dorm party because you’re feeling a bit bored and lonely.
Will we choose to continue our lives as normal so that we can secure that well-paid consulting, tech or banking job, buy that fancy house and send our children to Ivy League schools for them to repeat the same process? Or will we choose to step out on a limb and be empathetic, to potentially sacrifice our comfortable lives so that we can work to make life better for all people?
I will not pretend that this is a simple choice. Sacrifice based on tenuous hope is scary and illogical, and security is something that we all yearn for — especially those of us who come from backgrounds where nothing was guaranteed. But there are also immigrant children being separated from their families, Americans being denied access to health care and unarmed citizens being murdered — all on a planet that is slowly dying.
As Yalies, we may soon find ourselves with immense power and influence; the decisions we make today about how we wish to live our lives have the potential to shape the future in profound ways.
How will you choose to live your life?
CALEB DUNSON is a first year in Saybrook College. His column, titled ‘What We Owe,’ runs every other Tuesday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.