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Michaud: Finding the balance between collectivism and individualism

LAUREL HOLLOW, NY - OCTOBER 30: Residents work

LAUREL HOLLOW, NY - OCTOBER 30: Residents work to clear downed trees on White Oak Tree Road in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 30, 2012, in Laurel Hollow, N.Y. (Credit: Getty Images Photo)

Some people say this presidential race is a contest between worldviews. On one side is the collective view (Barack Obama), and on the other, the idea that the individual succeeds on his or her own (Mitt Romney). Think of the sound bites we’ve 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, is providing 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 check on each other’s well-being. Even in the heat of this close presidential contest, leaders of opposite parties return to civility. Perhaps New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gets that he might need the White House – whether it’s inhabited by an R or a D.


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I’m reading “The Social Conquest of Earth” by naturalist Edward O. Wilson. He 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.

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups,” Wilson says, and “altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”

Humans are at neither extreme, Wilson says. We are forever stuck in between selfishness and generosity. If we were all-out collectivists, we would robotically cooperate, 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’s playing out in our presidential election and will continue to bedevil us. What’s the right place on the spectrum?

Does it change after a hurricane?

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