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The Dartmouth
May 29, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Tran: When Freedom Becomes Harmful

The quintessential American value of individualism has taken on a toxic form, inhibiting our response to COVID-19.

Two years ago, our world was transformed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As my boarding school in Massachusetts, like other institutions across the nation, shifted to online learning, I was forced to book an immediate flight home to Hanoi, Vietnam. From 8,000 miles away, I watched with an outsider’s perspective as America’s devastating COVID-19 response unraveled. From the previous administration’s denial of the pandemic and laissez-faire policy approach to citizens’ anti-masking protests and fatal shootings –– reactions incomprehensible to me given the grave death toll of the virus –– life in the US seemed surreal, almost dystopian. 

Meanwhile in Vietnam, entire cities went into lockdown at the discovery of even a dozen community transmissions. Everyone wore masks religiously and adhered to strict lockdowns without complaint. Our collective efforts paid off as, until the arrival of the delta variant this year, Vietnam had managed to bring COVID-19 transmissions to a halt despite our densely populated cities. Similar trends can be seen in neighboring countries, such as China, Taiwan and South Korea. While differences in our political systems and administrations are largely responsible for the divergence in Vietnam and America’s COVID-19 responses, a key cultural opposition also underlies this discrepancy: individualism vs. collectivism.

If there is one thing that defines America, it is freedom. The U.S. is arguably the most individualistic country in the world. At its best, individualism is a catalyst for innovation, social change and economic growth. However, as we are seeing now, when taken too far, individualism prioritizes personal comfort and convenience over the livelihoods of others. It rejects social responsibility and cooperation, two fundamental pillars of a functioning society. 

A University of Virginia study sought to quantify the correlation between individualism and adherence to COVID-19-restrictions in the U.S., finding that in counties with greater individualism, as measured by time spent on the American frontier, statewide lockdown compliance was reduced by 41% and pandemic fundraising efforts by 48%. Similarly, a study from the University of British Columbia found that in other nations with higher degrees of individualism, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, social distancing and masking compliance was significantly reduced when compared to more collectivist countries, such as China. 

America’s COVID-19 response merely confirms what we already know: our hyper-individualism in its current form is toxic. While American individualism can be traced back two centuries to manifest destiny and the frontier, the modern variant of hyper-individualism did not emerge until the mid-20th century. Historically, Americans valued strong, tightly knit communities revolving around their religious or demographic affiliations. These communities wanted autonomy from the government but nourished close interpersonal relationships. However, the rise of capitalism and objectivism –– the doctrine that presents self-interest as the ultimate moral goal –– catalyzed a fixation on the individual pursuit of happiness. Altruism consequently became viewed as destructive and counterproductive. 

Political columnist Timothy Carney argues that this cultural shift has created a dilemma where Americans are now trading real, personal relationships for superficial affiliations. For example, people are likely to feel attached to their political party, yet not know their neighbors’ names. These surface-level connections cannot replace the value of genuine person-to-person relationships. Connection teaches us empathy and compassion: how to show unconditional respect, kindness and care for others. These values are the core of humanity; they make us better people and therefore, better members of society. 

The far-reaching consequences of hyper-individualism are already becoming evident. According to the Manhattan Institute, the proportion of American adults experiencing chronic loneliness has doubled since the 1980s. This rise in loneliness has undoubtedly been accompanied by a rise in mental health issues. Hyper-individualism has also exacerbated partisanship in the U.S., especially fueling right-wing populism. The byproducts of hyper-individualism may thus leave lasting dents on the fabric of American society. 

If the response to COVID-19 is any indication, we are wholly unprepared for the next global catastrophe. This pandemic has repeatedly shown us the importance of collective action as well as the many consequences of a lack of cooperation. Given that our increasingly complex global issues will continue to require collective efforts, our culture of hyper-individualism must change. 

This does not mean that an individualistic society cannot present a united front. New Zealand is a prime example. They are regarded as one of the most individualistic nations in the world, yet have had one of the best COVID-19 responses. While some of its success can be attributed to isolated geography, New Zealand’s robust collectivist messaging — calling citizens to protect one another and rally around the fight against COVID-19 — cannot be overlooked. Their primary campaign even used the slogan: “Unite Against COVID-19.”  Fellow individualistic nations like the U.S. might do well to follow suit. 

Messaging from political leaders emphasizing the importance of collective action is crucial. Last year we saw how the previous administration’s individualistic stance impacted the public’s view on COVID-19. The opposite must be done now.  COVID-19 policies should be informed by cultural and demographic analysis — for instance, governments might specifically bolster interventions in areas with higher individualism. 

Even beyond specific COVID-19 messaging and policies, there are other steps we might take to increase collectivism in American society. For instance, increasing spaces conducive to class-mixing –– be it racial or socioeconomic –– has been shown to cultivate collectivism. Public spaces such as libraries, parks, community centers, and religious places where people can form meaningful relationships with those around them are critical to regaining a sense of community and consequently, fostering compassion and empathy. 

I am not suggesting we abandon individualism for collectivism, as that would simply be impossible. However, I believe that, contrary to popular assumption, these two forces are not diametrically opposed. To address the complex problems of today, we must strike a balance: give value back to the community while also preserving individuality.