Individualism kills

As the countries of the world fight the Covid-19 pandemic, there are clear differences visible in how the general population reacts to the measures recommended by experts and implemented by governments. In countries like China, Singapore or Korea, the spread of the virus was effectively reduced by extreme social distancing measures like curfews. But when countries in the West like the UK or the United States tried to implement these measures, many people just didn’t follow the government’s recommendation. On the first weekend of what was supposed to be a lockdown in the UK, people flocked to seaside resorts as if it was a summer holiday. I live in an upper middle-class suburb of London and while there were fewer people on the streets than usual, it was still busy – and not just in supermarkets, but also in nail salons, clothing stores and other establishments that kept their doors open. 

Even more worrisome are the reports of wealthy people who don’t give a s**t about the effect their actions have on society as a whole. As someone said about the people living in my neighbourhood: “they have their entitlement cards always with them”. And similar reports are coming out of the United States, but strangely, not out of Korea or even Germany.

Some people argue that the United States and the UK are freer countries than China so the extreme lockdowns implemented there cannot be implemented here, but why is South Korea successfully fighting the virus, while Italy, a country similar in size, wealth and health care system struggling so much? I suspect, one of the crucial factors is how individualistic society is. Individualism, as opposed to collectivism, is complicated to measure, but in essence, it describes how much emphasis society puts on the collective and subgroups within the collective (e.g. families, communities) vs. their individual rights. The chart below shows that the United States and the UK are the most individualistic societies in the world, followed by Western European countries like Italy, France, and Germany. The countries that are currently fighting the pandemic most successfully are countries like China, Singapore, and Korea which are far more collectivist in nature. 

Individualism around the world

Source: Hofstede  

Individualistic societies are all facing a lack of compliance with social distancing measures, in my view not because they are freer in nature, but because in these cultures, individual liberties and rights are put above the collective good. The British are rightfully proud of how the country pulled together during the Second World War to fight the Germans. But what people tend to forget is that back then, British society was still dominated by Victorian values that put an emphasis on God and Empire above the individual. Winston Churchill was probably the last of the Victorian leaders this country has had. Since then, and in particular, with the rise of consumerism in the 1980s, British society has become much more individualistic. It is no longer country before self. Today, individual rights and personal fulfillment are pursued at all costs, even if that means that the public has to pay the price. If you don’t believe that, just remember all the people that have been out on the streets partying and having a good time as the pandemic was ramping up.

That attitude becomes deadly in a pandemic. If individuals think they have a right to be outside and nobody can tell them what to do, then they will spread the virus and infect people, some of which will die. There is data that indicates that people who are more successful professionally become more selfish in general, which may contribute to the entitlement so many wealthy people exhibit these days.

The problem with the Covid-19 pandemic is that it isn’t salient as a threat. Unlike in a war, the destruction is invisible for a long time and by the time the coffins and body bags pile up in the streets as in Italy, it is too late to act.

The next crisis: climate change

Which brings me to the next crisis we will have to face as a society: climate change. Just like the current pandemic, climate change is not salient to most people and by the time it becomes salient, it will be too late. Climate change requires global concerted action to successfully fight it and adapt to it, yet individualistic countries like the United States currently block the progress and doubt the reality of the impending catastrophe. The United States currently acts like homo economicus who only maximises his or her personal gain. The problem is, that climate change is an externality that currently is not priced in markets (which is why we need to put a price on carbon) and as a result, the individual gain of some comes at the cost of others. This kind of individualism will kill just like individualism kills people in the current pandemic.

What we need to do is rediscover Victorian values and stat to emphasise the collective more than the individual. If that sounds impossible, why don’t you start with yourself? I am not even talking about becoming a vegetarian or not flying anymore. I am talking about simpler things:

  • Start paying your taxes. So many people I know, especially those who live in Switzerland where taxes differ significantly from municipality to municipality, move to low tax communities to save on the already low taxes. This doesn’t make them smart, it makes them selfish. It is a legalised form of tax evasion and it destroys your community and the planet. As this pandemic should teach you, paying taxes is not an evil, it is what keeps us alive in times of crisis!

  • Similarly, if you have been advocating for lower taxes and lean government, take this crisis as an occasion to reflect on the unintended consequences of small government. Tax cuts have forced governments to reduce vital services from disaster preparedness to defense to health care. When the crisis hits, governments are unprepared and cannot react quickly enough - and people will die. Ironically, the current pandemic, as well as the climate crisis, will kill mostly older people who tend to be the ones voting for small government. Thus, I am making a plea for higher spending on infrastructure, disaster preparedness, health care, and defense (yes, we have to spend more on defense, because crises can get out of control quickly). I am not a socialist and agree that the government is often wasteful, but there are a number of important functions that only the government can take on. And in order to do that, it needs money. So if you want a lean government, stop arguing for lower taxes and instead start lobbying for useful spending on things that help society and that only the government can do effectively. Because if all we do is deprive the government of tax income while not telling it how to use the resources it has, then people are going to die.

  • Stop skiing. Skiing is one of the worst activities you can possibly do. It destroys the environment and the production of artificial snow (which becomes more and more prevalent due to climate change) has a massive carbon footprint. And all it does is give you a few hours of fun. If you enjoy après ski so much, just go to your local pub around the corner and get drunk there.

  • Stop golfing. See my point about skiing except that watering a gold course is a waste of resources. There are other fun things to do that put much less stress on resources than golfing or skiing.

  • Help those in need. We need to start giving away more of our disposable income. Many people in the United States and the UK are rightfully proud of their charitable giving, but let me ask you: what percentage of your disposable income do you give to charity? Why don’t you sit together with your family and think about setting up a systematic giving programme? Choose two or three charities you want to support and then set up an automatic monthly donation from your bank account.

In short, use the current pandemic as a wake-up call to become more society-minded and less selfish. We all think of ourselves as unselfish, but as the examples of skiing and paying taxes shows, most of us have adopted some habits that are clearly selfish in nature even though we don’t necessarily recognise them as such.