Compassionate Equality v Selfish Individuality

On the eve of America’s annual celebration of Freedom, I find myself turning over several thoughts about the nature of democracy and national character.  Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of “Obamacare” echoes debates happening in the UK as well: to insure or not to insure; to provide or not to provide; to care or not to care.  The question of how to look after your people is at the core of government, no matter how it is organised.  I have come to the conclusion that every leader and voter must choose between one of two paths.

Compassionate Equality or Selfish Individuality.

Of course, everyone will say they choose Compassionate Equality.  “We are not monsters.  We care about each other.  We desire nothing more than to see all God’s creatures succeed.” (or words to that effect).   But consider what Compassionate Equality really means.

Compassion means considering everyone’s needs, not just your own.  A compassionate society provides for every member of that society.  A compassionate society of equals means that this care is not dependent on anyone’s socio-political status or financial capability.  If you live in, vote in or lead a Compassionate Society of Equals it means you are cared for and you care for others simply because we live together as one.

Equality means everyone is equal.  Not the same, but equal.  This means that in order for another person to have true equality, you must be willing to surrender a piece of your power and status.  That means money too.  Nothing comes free.  If you want to live in a Compassionate Equal society you must be willing to pay for it materially, socially, spiritually, economically and politically.  There is no other way.

“OK,” I hear you say.  “Screw the Compassionate Equality hippie crap.  I’ll take the Selfish Individuality thanks.  I am number one.  I take care of me and mine.  I don’t expect anyone to look after me.  I do not need a governmental mother, my biological one was enough.”

Ayn Rand argued that selfishness was a virtue.  The selfish take pride in what they are capable of, make no apology and expect everyone else to do that same.  They are concerned only with their own interests, as we all should be, because then we never need to depend on anyone else’s compassion or interest in our own equality—we take that equality for ourselves.

Ayn Rand also celebrates the individual.  All hail individuality!  Everyone should be their own person without fear of persecution from “the masses”.  Everyone should be free to pursue their own interests, liberty and happiness.  So sayeth the Founding Fathers; so sayeth we all.

But what is the price of Selfish Individuality?  No one looks out for you.  You get sick, no one cares.  You die—no one helps your family.  You live in squalor under the thumb of a merciless employer?  Deal with it.  In a Selfish Individual Society, you are expected to handle your own problems.  Looking after your interests and issues is not the government’s job.  On the plus side, no one else’s problems are your problems either.  You do not have to pay in any way for other’s shortcomings or misfortunes in full knowledge no one will pay for yours either.  That is the price you have to be willing to pay if you want to live a Selfish Individual.  You must accept that no one will help you, you help yourself or you fall under the feet of greater individuals who never look where they step.

“But surely,” cries the voice of democracy, “a compromise can be reached.  You are over-simplifying.  The workings of society are not that black and white.”

Actually, I think they are that black and white.  Either we have Compassionate Equality or Selfish Individuality.  We cannot have Selfish Compassion or Equal Selfishness or Compassionate Individuality or even Individual Equality.  Not as a nation.  We must choose what kind of society we want to create and be part of.

I think the cold, hard fact that this is the choice with no compromise is the essential problem in Democracies around the world.  We cannot have it both ways.  If we value Equality, we must also embrace Compassion and relinquish a certain amount of our Individuality.  If we want Individuality it means buying into the virtue of Selfishness and abandoning our ideals of Equality and Compassion.

The debate over the future and nature of healthcare on both sides of the Atlantic is rooted in this choice.  The source of the political conflict over this issue is the fundamental misunderstanding that there can be no middle ground on a national level.  Compassionate Equality or Selfish Individuality.  No compromise.  Choose the nation you want to be.