9.4: Individual vs. Group Interest and Inequality
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Individual vs. Group Interest
So there are a variety of theories on government. There are a variety of political philosophies. Each offers its view on how it is that government is to hold and exercise power over individuals. Each operates within a more general view of how it is that society ought to be regulated. Each has what Plato would term an “ideal model” according to that model government acts. One of the ways in which governments must act is to resolve the conflicts that arise in every society between the interests that individuals have in their own welfare and happiness and the interest that the group as a whole has in its welfare.
In any society there is a natural tension between the interests of individuals and the interest of the group as a whole. There is a conflict between what individuals want and what serves their interests and what is needed for the welfare, safety and security of the entire group. Government needs to moderate that conflict. Depending on the type of view that is operative concerning the nature of the social arrangement and the nature of government, the conflict will be resolved in favor of one or the other sets of interests.
Crash Course Philosophy: Political Ideology in the USA
- Individuals may believe that they have the right to smoke tobacco. The group or society as a whole has an interest in preserving its health and well-being. How is the conflict to be resolved? In different societies there are different resolutions. In those favoring individualism there may be a great amount of freedom and a great reluctance on the part of government to restrict the liberties of individuals even when they are placing the welfare of others in jeopardy. In other societies that favor the common good over that of individuals there is less reluctance on the part of that government to intervene in the personal lives of individuals in order to preserve the common welfare and provide for the common good.
- Individuals have an interest in preserving their earnings and using them as they see fit. In most countries the government takes a portion of those earnings through taxation and distributes the goods and services purchased with those funds as the government thinks best to provide for the more general good.
- Individuals may want to ride in their automobiles without wearing a seat belt. Society acts to protect itself from foolish behavior that threatens the common welfare. Government enacts laws requiring the use of seat belts in order to reduce the number of accidents in which the drivers are injured and become so impaired that society must provide for their medical and physical care for the rest of their lives.
- Individuals have an interest in self-protection, sporting pleasure, or hunting and so want to have guns and handguns. Society has an interest in reducing injuries and deaths caused by the use of such devices as weapons involved in crimes or accidents. In some countries government has acted for the common welfare and has prohibited private ownership of such devices.
There are many other examples of such conflicts. If you consider some of the social topics of greatest interest and concern today you will probably find this basic conflict involved in it in some way. In the USA in 2001 consider the topics of the government’s tax surplus and what is to be done with it or education and whether or not to allow for vouchers for parents to use in selecting a school. Both of these topics involve individual interest against that of the group.
The topics involved with social and political philosophy are far from being uninteresting or unimportant. The theories of philosophers who discuss such topics are far from being of no concern to that of society. The ideas of philosophers on these matters have led directly or indirectly to revolutions and legislation and many social and political activities in all nations of the world.
A great problem facing the USA and the world at this time that involves the conflict between individual and group interests is the growing enormity of the inequality in wealth and income. Ideas concerning distributive justice and forms of government that would provide for such justice will be involved in the settlement of this conflict.
The topics involved with social and political philosophy are far from being uninteresting or unimportant. The theories of philosophers who discuss such topics are far from being of no concern to that of society. The ideas of philosophers on these matters have led directly or indirectly to revolutions and legislation and many social and political activities in all nations of the world. In the coming years there will be more attention given to and perhaps some activity to address the issue of the increasing inequality in wealth and in income between those who have a great deal and the many who have very little. There is perhaps no greater example of the conflict between the interests of the many or the whole of society and the interests of the few individuals who currently enjoy a vastly greater amount of wealth and the influence over social reforms than the vastly larger number of people who have far less wealth and little or no influence over the the agencies of social and economic reform. While many people in the USA indicate that they would prefer a much greater and more equal distribution of goods, services and wealth at the same time they tend to greatly underestimate the degree of the current inequality in both wealth and income. This is true no matter what the political affiliation or leanings. This lack of awareness or ignorance proves to be a major obstacle to meaningful discussions and potential reforms.
By "wealth" what is meant would be the total value of all that a person possesses which would include the value of homes and automobiles, boats, personal possessions, businesses and any savings or stocks and bonds or any other such investments. Wealth is usually not used for daily expenditures or factored into household budgets, but combined with income it comprises the family's total opportunity "to secure a desired stature and standard of living, or pass their class status along to one's children." Moreover, "wealth provides for both short- and long-term financial security, bestows social prestige, and contributes to political power, and can be used to produce more wealth." Hence, wealth possesses a psychological element that awards people the feeling of agency, or the ability to act. The accumulation of wealth grants more options and eliminates restrictions about how one can live life.
In 2014 the top 1% of the USA population (330,000,000) possessed 40% of all the wealth in the USA. That would be 3 million people who have as much as 120 million people. The bottom 80% own just 7% of the whole. By 2015 reports indicated that the top 1% own more than the bottom 90%. That would be 3 million people who have as much as 290 million people. The gap is growing each year. That gap between the top 10% and those in the middle is more than 1,000% and the gap between the top 1% and the middle class is 2000%.
Dennis Gilbert asserts that the standard of living of the working and middle classes is dependent upon income and wages, while the rich tend to rely on wealth, distinguishing them from the vast majority of Americans.
Workers in the USA need to labor for a month in order to earn what the typical CEO earns in one hour. Inequality in wealth is not the same as inequality in income, but they are related and similar in many ways. In Inequality For All—a 2013 documentary with Robert Reich in which he argued that income inequality is the defining issue for the USA—Reich states that 95% of economic gains went to the top 1% net worth (hnwi) since 2009 when the recovery allegedly started.
The disparity grows greater each year and the economic structures support that continuing. In a special report in the New York Times "By Molding Tax System, Wealthiest Save Billions" by Noam Scheiber and Patricia Cohen December 29, 2015. It is reported that "the very wealthiest families are able to quietly shape tax policy that will allow them to shield their income using maneuvers available only to several thousand Americans"
You can read commentary on the inequality in New York city in a column by Paul Krugman, "Inequality and the City." You can read about how the tremendous accumulation has changed the skyline in New York City "as a new high society climbs in Manhattan, it's a race to the top."