07 Jul

Inventing the Individual – Book review

Individualism - People

Individualism and the near global preoccupation with the self and the interests of the self is increasingly becoming the norm everywhere.

This norm is an abnormality. It is destroying the foundations of what makes life meaningful, and long lasting human relations and fulfilment possible. From time immemorial humanity has been characterized by the idea of community and commonality. This ancient norm is perhaps wired into our human genes, and correctly defines a key aspect of what truly makes us human. The rise of the solitary individual, and ‘the lonely crowd’, is a paradox that has been the focus of many studies. The English poet John Donne immortalized the powerful message that:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main …
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Larry Siedentop’s book, Inventing the Individual – the Origins of Western Liberalism, demonstrates that Individualism has not always been an essential part of the Anglo-American/European ethos or of non-Western, non-European societies either. It is a new invention which arose at a certain point in the history of these societies. This development was however, progressive, eventually preferring an “association of individuals rather than an association of families” (p129).

Central to Siedentop’s argument is the pivotal role played by the medieval Church. He pays special attention to the rise of monasticism and the teachings of the Church fathers and intellectuals, such as Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Dons Scotus, William of Occam and Augustine, among others. He discusses, for example, the role played by Augustine who in his Confessions (an extended prayer) focuses on “the inwardness of the individual … a sphere of dialogue, of conversation with God” (p104). By Augustine privileging prayer and grace, thus “Inventing the Individual – in the sense of acknowledging the equality of humans in the face of their maker…” (p105), Siedentop argues, he laid the foundation for “ … the demolition of ancient rationalism. The patriarchal family, the aristocratic society underlying the polis, the cosmos as a hierarchy of ends and purposes: all these became suspect and vulnerable without its support” (p104).

The European renaissance and reformation created the context for a further development and understanding of these ideas. Christian belief in the special place of prayer and grace, in the equality of souls and in moral equality before God are then seen to be the mother of Western Liberalism, together with its radical notions of human liberty, equality and fraternity.

The new secularism, and the future of these ideas cut off and without reference to their original Christian cradle and context, poses a present and real danger. The runaway contemporary naked individualism, the glaring inequalities and lack of respect one for the other, the diminishing freedoms everywhere – these are perhaps a sign of this danger. So, too, is the unconscionable greed, excessive love of money and power, at the expense of loving and empowering human relations. Siedentop very powerfully reminds us of this. To his fellow Westerners he concludes “If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?” (p363).

Review of Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual – The Origins of Western Liberalism (Penguin, 2015).
Dr Aloo Mojola Visiting Professor in Translation Studies, Philosophy and Biblical Studies at St Paul’s  University, Limuru, Kenya.

RTN is neutral politically, and is not a religious organisation. On this website we publish articles and opinion pieces that align with our values (link to values statement on the website) but the author’s views are his own.

14 Apr

‘Big government’ anti-relational? Not when it comes to income inequality!

Goldfish income inequality for RTN website

Over the last decade, research on well-being has increased exponentially. While the main focus of economists is on the relationship between well-being and GDP per capita, they are becoming increasingly aware of the role of income inequality. This is an important topic for relational thinking as well, since income inequality is closely related to social cohesion and trust within a society. While relational research often focuses on interpersonal relationships directly, the structure and organization of societies and their economies can be a major source of stress. The impact of poverty is widely understood, yet income inequality can put relationships under a similar kind of pressure. Much is still unknown about how inequality affects well-being and what can be done about it. This blog aims to give a first glance at ongoing research on the matter, from a relational perspective.

When discussing income inequality, we should first ask ourselves what do we mean, and why is it worth to be studied? A classic approach is to look at absolute income differences within a country. Yet, as humans are social beings whose well-being depends on interaction and comparison with others, it is relative income inequality that social scientists should be most concerned about. A commonly used measure is the Gini-coefficient, a complex mathematical function that unfortunately tends to overestimate inequality between incomes in the middle of the distribution. Due to the nonlinear nature of income inequality, a better alternative is to look at the % of national income that is earned by the richest 10% of the population of a country. For European countries this number ranges from about 24% in Denmark, up to more than 40% in the UK. This means that on average one third of all income in a country goes to 10% of the population, leaving two thirds to the remaining 90% . This may not sound very alarming. Yet a similar pattern can be seen within the 90% group. In the end, high inequality means that a relatively large group is left with relatively little income. Several researchers have argued that the current level of inequality causes polarization of societies, as different income groups tend to become isolated from one another through consumption patterns, education, and even residential areas. When inequality is furthermore perceived as a sign of unfairness, it can pose a serious threat to social cohesion and mutual trust, even further deteriorating relationships.

Closer investigation of the matter shows that while perceptions of inequality are important, countries with higher levels of income inequality have lower average life satisfaction irrespective of cultural differences. This is especially true for countries with relatively high standards of living, and the relationship is causal. The question is then what causes income inequality, and can it be influenced without major distortions to the functioning of the economy. Ideally, productivity should determine one’s income. Productivity can however not be directly observed, while differences between supply and demand of labor may lead to unequal bargaining positions. Thus, market structure and government institutions have a major impact on the distribution of income. More formally, these are called the degree of economic freedom of a country. As an indicator, economic freedom is usually divided into five sub-indices, being size of government (consisting of government expenditures and fiscal policy), the quality of the legal system, sound money, free trade, and the degree of regulation of capital, labor, and credit markets. Of these sub-indices, tax policies and low regulation have a strong and very significant impact on income inequality. As suggested by Piketty (2014), a country’s tax structure has an important signal function regarding what kind of earning system and income distribution are acceptable to a society. In addition, government regulation of an economy strengthens the bargaining position of the weak and poor and offers them protection against abuse of power. In addition to its potential direct positive impact, this leads to more equal outcomes, strengthening both work and family relationships.

What does this mean for relational thinking? While a lot of things can be left to the responsibility of local communities, sound macroeconomic structures are essential to contain income inequality, strengthening these communities and supporting healthy relationships. Thus, how paradoxical it may sound, ‘big government’ is not always such a bad idea!

Bjorn Lous is a second-year PhD-student at Tilburg University, studying the relationship between economic freedom, income inequality and life satisfaction.