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Saturday, Oct 13 2012 10:00 PM

WILLIAM BEZDEK: The individual and the community must both prosper

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PRO. The coming election will contain a debate pitting the importance and contribution of the individual versus the significance and contribution of the community. This can be presented as a conflict between individual liberty and the responsibility of the government to establish order and tranquility in our nation and culture.

The Republicans will stress the individual at the expense of the government. Indeed, they will stress that the state limits individual liberty and therefore the state needs to be suppressed. The Democrats will stress the deleterious effects of uncontrolled greed and its tendency to enrich the wealthy and precipitate depressions. Therefore, the individual (and corporations) needs to be properly regulated in order to maintain order and stability. Who is right?

We have already seen some of this with Paul Ryan talking about individualism and extolling the place of the individual in our culture. The Republican National Convention had speaker after speaker claiming that they alone were responsible for their own business success ("I built that!") with the implication that they accomplished it without any help from the government. President Obama, in a famously misquoted moment, pointed out that individuals do not succeed in business solely by their own efforts but are also helped by education, infrastructure, security, and a regulated stable financial system provided by the government.

Both positions miss the big picture. Consider Oscar Pistorius, the "Blade Runner" who, after having both legs amputated, competed in both the London Olympics and Paralympics with the aid of carbon-fiber transtibial artificial limbs. His effort to compete has to be attributed to his individual conditioning (individualism) but his ability to compete has to be attributed to the communities that discovered carbon fiber, analyzed its properties and engineered the design to the point that would make him competitive with the best two-legged runners in the world. Egotistical, self-centered individuals claim that their success is due only to their own efforts. This frame of mind is also seen in individuals who have been blinded by their success and no longer give credit to all those who have helped them along the way. This can easily lead people in power to become selfish and tyrannical. Think of it this way -- individualism without humility is one step away from tyranny.

Today, this tyranny is most notable in the failure of the rich to pay a just proportion of taxes. One of the principles of capitalism is that a person should be paid for the value he adds to property. The wealthy, by denying the value that government has added to their business, make the claim that they do not need to pay for this added value. This other side of trickle-down economics has resulted in a shift of wealth from the middle class to the very rich.

The point is we are all our brothers' keepers. We accomplish more when working as a community, not as individuals. We all need to pay for the benefits government provides in proportion to the value we receive and we need to watch out for the corruption wealth can produce in our society -- greed, selfishness and tyranny.

Conservatives delight in scaring people with the word "collectivism," which they equate with socialism or communism. Those terms are bantered about repeatedly in order to induce fear in voters. But collectivism is simply this: a political theory advocating collective control over production and distribution. Individualism is a theory that maintains the political and economic independence of the individual and stresses individual initiative, action and interests.

Rather than theorizing, a more humanistic approach would be a dichotomy between the individual and the community. This would require inventing a new word -- community-ism -- that would serve as a counterpoint to individualism. Certainly without community, we could never have built the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam or the interstate highway system; nor would we have sent men to the moon or eliminated Japanese and German imperialism during World War II. There is both a need for individual achievement serving as a stimulus toward excellence and the collective cooperation of community advancing all mankind toward a richer and fuller existence.

Dr. William D. Bezdek is a retired cardiologist who survived 37 years of practice in Bakersfield.

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