Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Individualism Vs Institutionalism

David Brooks has an interesting column on the difference between individualist thinking and acting, and institutional thinking and acting. He starts by referring to a Harvard committee study report:

The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.

This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called “On Thinking Institutionally” by the political scientist Hugh Heclo.

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

American conservatism and liberalism are both stretched between these two polar opposites. Individualism and institutionalism (a.k.a. communalism) are integral parts of the thinking of both political liberals and conservatives.

For example, Brooks is a conservative who proudly works as a columnist for a great institution called the New York Times, as his liberal counterpart on the Times, Paul Krugman, proudly writes for the Times and teaches at Princeton University.

Likewise, conservatives tend to believe in the freedom of bankers and businessmen to run their own affairs free from interference from government, whereas liberals believe in the right of consenting adults to run their own sexual lives free of interference from the government.

It just goes to show that individualism and institutionalism cannot stand alone but must interact and balance each other in appropriate ways.

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