There is a thread that runs through most of the opinions that you find on the pages of The Republic. It underlies most of the back-and-forth arguments we read about at the local, state, national and international levels. It is a struggle that has gone on for as long as humans first governed themselves: the one between the “good of the individual” and the “common good.”
You will see this in discussions about:
Gun control: individual right to own guns and the common good to have a safe environment
Land use: right of owners to use land as they wish and common good of impact on neighbors (odors, traffic, land values, etc)
Individual tax rates and needs of the community
Equal rights of individuals to marry, vote and reproductive rights versus the common set of values held by the community.
I am just touching the tip of the iceberg here, but I hope you get the point.
You can escalate this to the rights of individual states versus the common good of the nation and fill in those conflicts. That usually comes down to constitutional issues that go the Supreme Court. Or you can elevate even higher to the rights of a sovereign nation amid the rights of human kind. (Is it OK for some countries to abide slavery, torture, mass killings, etc. to sustain power?)
This is the universal conflict of living, and both sides have a good point. We need individual freedom to express ourselves, to strive to better ourselves economically, to live the way we wish, to love who we wish to love, to pray to whom we wish to pray or not to pray. The individual is the creative force that has moved us forward as a human culture.
The individual invents things, pushes the boundaries of culture, questions things, bring new things/ideas to us and creates the new businesses that let our economic system work so well. To kill the individual initiative is to dull our dynamic social and economic life.
On the other hand, we must create a common bond that holds our society together, that lets there be order and some predictability of living. We need security and safety and good roads and to be free from fear that we will lose what we have gained and produced.
We need to have a sense that what I eat will not be poisoned, that what I drink is not contaminated, what I drive is not a safety hazard, what I breathe is not toxic and what I believe in will be protected.
The more you look at this dynamic balance between the common good and the individual, you can see that they are not so much in conflict, but hold hands in a unique dance of progress. The individual contributes in unique ways to help the greater good, and the greater good supports the freedom of the individual to pursue their potential. They are not in conflict. But, they are when we lose sight of this balance.
They are in conflict when people push the balance to one side or the other of that scale — when people believe it is all about the individual, and then they demand a society that only caters to that side. They forget the social environment that supports them. You have seen this in some of the arguments that show up on these pages. “Nothing should impede the individual” is the mantra. Ignoring that we need to live together.
And, there are those who wish that the government would get rid of all those pesky individuals who cause us pain and hardship and economic inequality and take advantage of the poor and the weak. They seek a harmony and an equanimity that defies the facts of human differences in skill and ability and motivation.
Human life is messy. Simple as that, but we must live together and we must strive to individually achieve our potential. It is one messy dance of life. Beware of those who push toward the extreme for they do not get this notion of balance. The more we split and go to those opposing ends, the more we create useless conflict in our world. And life is tough enough without that added waste of energy.
Columbus retiree Tom Lane served as a consultant to a number of companies in his career. In recent years his has been a familiar name to readers of The Republic’s letters to the editor. He can be reached at [email protected].