By Bryan Caplan
Individualists such as myself are often accused of being psychologically oblivious. Look around! The vast majority of human beings crave community and belonging. Social thinkers who refuse to account for this obvious fact may be smart and articulate. But they don’t know what they’re talking about.
I agree that most individualists are psychologically oblivious. But so is almost everyone. The problem is not individualists, but psychology. The replication crisis notwithstanding, psychology is a tough and subtle subject. We can’t directly observe anyone’s psychology but our own – and our self-descriptions are corrupted by our desire to impress others. Each person’s intimate familiarity with his own psychology helps, but also misleads because we’re so quick to generalize from our person to all mankind.
Assertions about humans’ intense craving for community and belonging are a case in point. The surface problem: The humans who energetically defend these claims tend to be exceptionally communitarian. That’s why they’re so outspoken on the topic. The fundamental problem, though, is that “community” and “belonging” sound good, leading to rampant lip service.
How can I say that? By noting the stark contrast between how much people say they care about community, and how lackadaisically they try to fulfill their announced desire. I’ve long been shocked by the fraction of people who call themselves “religious” who can’t even bother to attend a weekly ceremony or speak a daily prayer. But religious devotion is fervent compared to secular communitarian devotion. How many self-styled communitarians have the energy to attend a weekly patriotic or ethnic meeting? To spend a few hours a week watching patriotic or ethnically-themed television and movies? To utter a daily toast to their nation or people? Indeed, only a tiny percentage of people who claim to love community find the time for communitarian slacktivism.
You could argue that coordination costs explain the curious shortage of intentional communities. But nothing stops secular communitarians from matching the time commitment of suburban Catholics. Well, nothing but their own apathy.
The lesson: While individualists do tend to neglect mankind’s craving for community, they err on the side of truth. Actions really do speak louder than words. And actions reveal that people are far less communitarian than they claim.