Individualism vs. collectivism is a false choice

This essay was first published in Newsday.

Some people say the 2012 presidential race was a contest between worldviews. On one side is the collective view (represented by President Barack Obama), and on the other, the idea that the individual succeeds on his or her own (promoted by Mitt Romney).

Think of the sound bites we had on these themes - from Rep. Paul Ryan's admiration for ultra-individualist Ayn Rand to Obama's reminder that business people didn't "build that" by themselves. They had a country behind them.

Superstorm Sandy, as if on cue, blew in to provide us with daily reminders of how we need each other. Driving past a recently bisected tree that had been blocking my daily commute, I know: I didn't cut that.

Neighbors have been checking on one another's well-being. Even in the heat of the close presidential contest, leaders of opposite parties returned to civility. Perhaps New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who considered challenging Obama, understood that he might need the White House - whether it's inhabited by an R or a D.

In "The Social Conquest of Earth," published earlier this year, naturalist Edward O. Wilson argues that humans evolved as we did precisely because we have strains of both individualism and collectivism. Wilson, who has spent years studying ant colonies, updates the idea that the fittest individuals survive. In fact, groups in which individuals sacrifice for the good of the collective have, over millions of years, won out. "Selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals," Wilson writes, "while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals."

Groups that are willing to share, to withhold individual rewards in order to further the growth of the collective, emerged from the evolutionary contest to become modern humans.

But we've retained characteristics of both, Wilson says. We are forever stuck in between selfishness and generosity. If we were all-out collectivists, we would cooperate robotically, like ants. As extreme individualists, humans wouldn't have formed societies where we specialize in healing, finding food and building shelters.

It's that tension of being stuck in between that played out in the presidential election - and will continue to bedevil us. What's the right place on the spectrum? Does it change after a hurricane?

Individualists say that when people are free to act in their own self-interest, society benefits. This philosophy promotes hard work and worries about creeping totalitarianism.

Collectivists point out the many things we accomplish together that we wouldn't do singly - efforts that spread the cost over many people and even many generations: medicine, the university system, roads and airports, our judicial system, arming a military, fighting fires.

People who hold the collectivist view fear that job creators want an excuse for greed and special tax treatment.

The great thing is that we don't have to choose between these views - no matter what you heard on the presidential campaign trail. Science argues for some of each.

So, what's it to be to lift us out of the Great Recession? Other catastrophes, like the Great Depression, have catalyzed collective solutions. We emerged with the Social Security Act and the GI Bill and a sense that we're in this together.

It's been difficult over the past several months to feel a sense of fellowship, however. I purposely didn't vote for either candidate in my Assembly district yesterday because I thought they made false, destructive claims about each other.

So, I'm glad it's the day after Election Day. Let's set aside fake choices and use all of our abilities to move on.