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The economic decline of 2008 and the slow recovery have fostered socio-economic debate, not just between Keynesians and austerians, but among sociologists and others seeking more profound answers to our troubles, says scholar John Horvat II, a sought-after researcher and scholar.
"I think 2008 was really a wake-up call for America. In my studies as to the deep causes of our socio-economic problems, the main culprit is something I call frenetic intemperance. It's a restless, reckless spirit that infects sectors of modern economy and foments a drive to throw off legitimate restraints and gratify all desires," says Horvat, author of the just-published book, "Return to Order: From A Frenzied Economy to An Organic Christian Society - Where We've Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go," (www.ReturnToOrder.org).
"There are a number of historical influences that have created and built up this phenomenon, including individualism and its postmodern mutant. They have greatly diminished the moderating influence of family, community, and church."
A pivotal point in the changing attitude of Americans is the conflation of individuality and individualism, says Horvat, who reviews important distinctions.
Q: The two terms seem very similar; what's the difference?
A: Individuality is manifested when someone fully develops the personality and talents that make him or her different from others. Individuality encourages someone to develop an intensely social character by participating in a community while acknowledging moral law and the common good.
Individualism is a deformation of individuality by which a person makes himself the center of an enclosed world of personal self-interest that tends to disregard the social character of people and their roles in community.
Q: Is some degree of individualism a good thing?
A: Never, as it is a deformation. Yet individualism's roots go back far - to Thomas Hobbes in the 1600s. Hobbes saw society as a "sand heap" of individuals, each led by a misguided understanding of self-interest. Obviously, we all need to look out for ourselves and our families. But individualism cannot be confused with a sense of responsibility. Individualism is rooted in selfishness. For many today in America, self-indulgence has become the overriding criteria in their decisions. This creates tensions and contradictions that are putting the United States in a state of crisis.
Q: How does individualism work to destroy the American economy?
A: The United States plays a special role in the world by advocating for democratic values and liberty. While recent wars have divided citizens on how best this should be done, the country nonetheless is the leading example of civil freedom. The logical conclusion of celebrated self-interest is an atomization of society, creating a self-enclosed micro-world that is limited, lonely, anonymous and empty. This is contrary to man's social nature and works against the greater good.
Q: How might we start trending more toward individuality versus individualism?
A: This is a long and complex solution which calls for action in several areas. One of them is acknowledging our materialistic society, which has cultivated an excessive fixation on pleasure and the bodily comforts of everyday life. We need to recognize that we have specifically spiritual desires, which are part of our nature, that long to be satisfied. So, a good start in promoting individuality above individualism is respecting and responding adequately to our spiritual and metaphysical inclinations.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker and author. His writings have appeared worldwide, including in The Wall Street Journal, FOX News, The Christian Post, The Washington Times, ABC News and C-SPAN.
Published: May 30, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 07