I was in the middle of writing an article about something else when this ripsnorter landed in my news stack: the Henley Centre has published the results of its annual single-question survey regarding individualism, and the results are SWEET! I put my unfinished post through the shredder and started to read.

Michelle Harrison, head of the public sector consultancy at the Henley Centre Headlight Vision, has summarised: “For the last 20 years we’ve been asking people the same question: Do you think the quality of life in Britain is best improved by a) looking after the community’s interests instead of our own, or b) looking after ourselves, which ultimately raises standards for all?”

Now, let me pause to say that answer (b) could be read as the succinct premise of this blog and could be read as the nucleus of the agenda advanced by libertarians. In fact this question is perhaps one of the best barometers of public openness to libertarian ideals. The difference between the answers is communism (a) where the needs of the community come first and libertarianism (b) where individuals are free to pursue their own agenda. I had an obvious interest, therefore, in which answer was given this year by the British public in response.

“53 percent now say (b), looking after ourselves,” reveals Harrison. “Last year that was around 45 percent. From 1994 to 2000 there was a big gap [in favour of the community] and since then it has narrowed and now crossed over.”

Well, bravo! I often wondered whether the lack of willingness on the part of the British public to fight high taxation, redistributive policies, the nanny state and other socialist tomfoolery is due to a real aspiration to collectivist values, or whether it can be attributed more to a general feeling of powerlessness and apathy about the political system. Reassuringly, it would appear that if the Henley Centre survey results are a good yardstick, at least for the 53 percent, my fears of the former may be unfounded. Alternatively it could be that the other 47 percent are just a bunch of whinging, wailing, whining, whimpering drama-queens whose political clout is the thrilling result of their inability to shut their cakeholes. Whatever the case may be, I’m pleased that the idea of the Individual has not completely disappeared from the British political landscape.

And some on the Left hate it. Guardian columnist Decca Aitkenhead (who paradoxically would appear to agree with my assessment of apathy in the UK) has written an essay entitled ‘It’s All About Me’ about the survey results, with the subtitle: “A survey this week revealed that we’re all becoming rampant individualists. But what are the social consequences of this mass outbreak of selfishness?” Of course her question here is ideologically revealing: the belief that the self-interest of the individual is inherently destructive to ‘society’ is an innate conviction of left-liberals, as which Aitkenhead definitely qualifies.

But, as a “rampant individualist” myself, I can tell you that conviction happens to be wrong.

She begins by getting a dig into the left-loathed SUV: “Even the people who accuse SUV drivers of selfishness perhaps do not realise quite how selfish they are. Sports utility vehicles, or 4x4s, are not just oversized, and grotesquely fuel-inefficient. They are not even very safe: statistically, you are more likely to crash driving an SUV than a Porsche Boxster. So why do so many people buy them? Because people feel safe in an SUV: in the event of a collision, they are virtually guaranteed to come off better than whoever they hit. It is the vehicle of choice for the supremely self-interested.”

Wow, slow down there, Decca! Five little points:

1) SUVs are not always 4x4s, many of them don’t have four-wheel drive and therefore don’t qualify (this is true particularly in Britain). ‘4×4’ is therefore a misnomer in many or most cases. This is demonstrable of how much Aitkenhead actually knows about SUVs.

2) SUVs are not “oversized” for a family of more than five (nor are they “grotesquely fuel inefficient” in that case), nor are they oversized for those who regularly utilise their SUV’s flexible space for hauling large items or for sport, the last couple of which apply to me.

3) Aren’t fast sports cars and large vans and trucks “grotesquely fuel inefficient” too? Why do I never hear the Left complaining about them?

4) Since there are relatively few Porsche Boxsters on the streets of Britain, the claim that more people crash in SUVs is not particularly indicative of anything. She’ll go on to say that one in every eight vehicles is an SUV. Aside from the fact that the British define ‘SUV’ much more widely and the term encompasses many more vehicles than the US definition (such as crossover utility vehicles which are built entirely differently and should not be subject to the same criticism that real SUVs are), I’m not sure if I’m understanding the statistic correctly. Unless every eighth vehicle in Britain is a Porsche Boxter, how does it make any sense to compare the two? And since Aitkenhead admits that more people survive accidents in SUVs than in other vehicles (last sentence of the paragraph), I’m not exactly sure what claim is really being made here.

5) In another ideological idiosyncrasy, she tries to convince me that it is unfair of me to drive an SUV because it gives me an unfair advantage in a road accident! For two reasons, I’m going to pass on trying to explain my objection to this kind of thinking. Firstly because I’m afraid that I’ll be unable to contain my frustration and end up throwing something in anger that’s too expensive to throw – in this sense I’m saving myself money by avoiding the issue – and secondly because I have a feeling that I can easily lump in my response with the rest of this essay. In the meantime, see this article for the reasons I own an SUV.

Well I’m sure Aitkenhead at this stage feels a little better, getting the SUV stuff off her chest… so let’s move on.

She now gets to the meat of the issue, the Henley Centre survey: “It is easy to read too much into polls. But in this instance, there is evidence of a cultural shift towards selfishness practically everywhere you look. Ten years ago, for example, SUVs accounted for one in 18 car sales, [HOLY BLOWHOLE! We’re still on SUVs?] today that figure is one in eight. ‘Consumers say they support the environment,’ an energy watchdog spokesman observed, ‘but act in a less sustainable way.’”

This is a leftist thought-hybrid, per se, a double mind-fart, if you will, a doctrinal combo of sorts: (a) individuals bad, society good AND (b) global warming is coming to kill us all. See this article for my cynicism on the second point. So this is, so far, an article about individualism only so far as you buy into the leftist dogma on climate change. It only makes sense to those who believe that we’re all in dire trouble if we don’t stop driving SUVs. If, as I suspect, little measurable environmental gain could be made by abandoning SUVs, then SUV drivers’ actions are not detrimental to ‘society’, no matter how twitchy they make Decca Aitkenhead.

So, let’s move on now. “The Daily Telegraph reports that theft from churches has reached such proportions that some vicars, accustomed to locking the doors, have conceded they may need CCTV. News broadcasters show CCTV footage of muggings…”

Is it just me, folks, or is Aitkenhead with this example trying to equate CRIME with INDIVIDUALISM? I guess you could say that crime is unlawful individualism, but isn’t that kind of obvious? And hasn’t crime always existed, no matter how ‘individualistic’ we’ve made societal rules? I don’t think anyone would argue that theft is welcome, or that assault should be tolerated, or that a hit-and-run (as she goes on to mention) should be an acceptable mechanism of individualism. It seems rather silly to mention it (though it may be the last resort of this square argument in a round survey result).

Aitkenhead goes on: “In a typical week, I may queue-barge, jump traffic lights on my bicycle, elbow my way into a tube seat, leave litter. In shops I often can’t be bothered to return the clothes to their rail, so I just plonk them down for somebody else to take care of. I frequently snap at minicab drivers when they get lost, and regularly forget to recycle my rubbish …. The list could go on.”

In the United States of America, a nation founded upon ‘individualist’ ideals, much of what she describes would simply be called rude or bad-mannered. And yet it doesn’t seem to be the product of ‘individualism’. American manners are famously impeccable: “Have a nice day!”, “So nice to see you!”, “Can you find everything ok?”, “Can I get you anything else this afternoon?” And yet it comes within a framework that is unapologetically self-centred: leave your vehicle with us and we’ll park it for you, leave your shopping cart beside your vehicle and we’ll put it back for you, give me your almost empty cup and I’ll refill it for you, stay in your car and we’ll bring your food to you. Aitkenhead mentions not returning clothes to the rail. In America, you simply aren’t expected to! When my American wife and I lived in the UK, she found it difficult to get used to being expected to hang clothes back where she found them; she had always been used to leaving them in the fitting area or at the checkout.

The largest voluntary exchange of cash on earth is spent by Americans in tips: the incentive of the gratuity has created one of the highest-quality service cultures in the world. Americans could easily spend their entire lifetimes not paying tips and save themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process, but they don’t! I would estimate that I spend almost $2000 per year on tips alone. The service I receive in return is the combined product of many individuals doing the same, the precedent of which establishes a desire in the tipee to provide a great service. This is individualism benefiting the community – like every kind of business transaction, really. It never ceases to amaze me how little credit corporations get from the left-wing, considering how many of their ‘victims’ are given jobs and consequently given access to the corporations’ wealth and consequently livelihoods from the very capitalism they hate so much.

Anyway, it doesn’t appear that ‘individualism’ is anything but a blessing for American consumers and a means of attracting customers for businesses. And the American response to Aitkenhead’s minicab driver problem is that if you don’t want to be snapped at for getting lost, and you would like to make a better living to boot, see to it that you know the city streets better than your rival! In short, Aitkenhead’s theory on individualism seems to fall apart (short of relying on other leftist theories) when one looks to the most individualist society that exists.

Her essay continues with a look at a Newcastle University experiment that displayed “a poster above a tea and coffee honesty box. For 10 weeks, they alternated the poster. Some weeks, it featured a pair of eyes, and others, a bunch of flowers. When they counted up the coins in the box each week, they found without fail that more money was paid when the poster showed eyes.” She concludes that this is because, as early humans formed social groups, those societies only worked when individuals had to cooperate for the good of the group, rather than act selfishly. I’m not exactly sure about the validity of this claim or how this didn’t simply indicate that people were freaked out and thought the eyes meant that they were being watched by CCTV or something. But one thing is clear: Aitkenhead still can’t resist playing ‘individualism’ off against ‘the good of’ society – like they’re diametrically opposed. Her idea that individuals acting in self-interest do so to the detriment of the community is simply senseless poppycock, and she hasn’t demonstrated otherwise.

She goes on to tell us how psychotherapy, feminism, atheism and the anonymity of urban life has contributed to British selfishness, and then asks: “How is it that we have turned against placing the common interest first, while electing a government that advocates more social conscience? It seems paradoxical.” I must admit I smirked when I read that line. Maybe the truth is that the more people see modern democratic socialism and breathe its effects, the more individualism they crave. Indeed, that could explain the Thatcher era quite well, and bless the British people for seeing electoral sense just a year before I was born in Belfast – that was cutting it close! (It could have been James Callaghan… *shudder*).

Anyway, this Aitkenhead essay is giving me a headache.

Ironically and unbelievably, Achinghead ends this tirade against the individual by quoting from Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. No kidding! Does she actually know who Adam Smith was? He who advocated the very selfish, very capitalist free market, saying that while it appears chaotic it is actually guided by an “invisible hand” (a concept often called upon by libertarians like myself in Smith’s tradition of thought)? He who believed that “while human motives are often selfish and greedy, the competition in the free market would tend to benefit society as a whole by keeping prices low” (Wikipedia)? He who argued for a laissez-faire approach to government? He who attacked the kinds of government-imposed “social conscience” that Achinghead so adores? He who made one of the best arguments against what Achinghead is trying to say?

He who wrote this in The Wealth of Nations?:

“As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual value of society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

Selfishness is a virtue, folks. The process is simple: by looking after yourself, you reduce or eliminate the need for anyone else to look after you, you become self-sufficient and you inevitably enhance society.

It is selfishness that impedes the rights of others to act with equal freedom that is the real problem. And perhaps, just perhaps, the British people are beginning to understand that.

John Wright