Individual Action Can’t Solve Social Problems

by Martin Butler in 3QuarksDaily: A UK politician recently suggested that people could combat the cost-of-living crisis by working more hours or getting a better job. This is one more in a long line of instances where societal problems have been framed as being solvable by individual actions. One of the earliest I can remember was when Tory minister Norman Tebbit, following a claim that the riots of 1981 were caused by high unemployment, cited his own father as a salutary example of self-responsibility. ‘I grew up in the 30s with an unemployed father,’ he said. ‘He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.’ More recently British TV personality Kirsty Alsop recommended that young people start saving earlier and cut out the fancy coffees, gym membership and Netflix subscriptions as a way of combatting unaffordable house prices.

These ‘solutions’ have a homespun attraction and are indeed the kinds of advice you might give to an individual. Lurking behind this approach however is the assumption that societal problems can be reduced to the particular problems of individuals, that getting individuals to make the right decisions is a viable solution. Those who don’t make the right decisions, it is implied, only have themselves to blame, and must also take responsibility for the wider problems of society.

Let’s look at some of the forms this argument takes.

The above are examples of what is perhaps the least convincing. The basic problem is that the ‘solutions’ can’t be universalized. If everyone facing the cost-of-living crisis could get a better job, who would do the less well-paid jobs left behind? Presumably those that took these inferior jobs would also face the cost-of-living crisis because of the low pay and would also need to get better jobs, and so on ad infinitum. Individuals can of course get better jobs but it’s nonsense to think that everyone feeling the financial pinch can get a better job, and crass to suggest it. Similarly, some people might be able to increase their hours, but where is this endless supply of ‘extra hours’ supposed to come from? It’s nonsense to assume that everyone could, at the same time, increase their hours.

Illustration by Sadia Tariq

The unaffordable housing market is perhaps a more interesting example. Some young people on modest incomes who have saved incredibly hard no doubt do manage to get onto the housing ladder without significant financial help from other sources such as parents. But what would happen if all young people wanting to buy did the same thing? Putting aside the economic consequences of a drop in spending on leisure activities, house prices would surely rise even further as demand increased. Far from being solved, the problem would be exacerbated.

A second form of the argument concerns social mobility.  We often hear stories of individuals who manage to move from a poverty-stricken childhood to high success – whether this is as wealthy entrepreneurs or in a professional career. If one person has managed to complete the rags to riches journey, the argument goes, then why can’t others? All you need is grit and determination. It can then be argued that the barrier to personal advancement is nothing to do with the society in which we live; it’s just down to a lack of motivation on the part of the individual. This can sound deceptively plausible because no one would deny that grit and determination are admirable character traits that clearly do help in getting on in life. But what if more people made a greater effort to achieve the top jobs or become successful entrepreneurs? Standards for achieving success would become ever higher, so the amount of grit and determination required would continue to increase. Higher numbers of individuals showing more grit and determination does not necessarily mean higher levels of success, and certainly does not mean that the social background of those who tend to get the top jobs would change. In recent years the increased number of graduates has not meant higher social mobility, it has just meant that a mere bachelor’s degree no longer provides access to the kinds of jobs it used to.

There are periods in history when the opportunities for social mobility have increased because of structural changes in patterns of employment or the introduction of new technologies. In the middle decades of the last century, for example, social mobility rose due to a steady increase in managerial and professional jobs rather than an increase in educational opportunities. So, while many whose parents spent their lives in quite lowly manual jobs gained higher status employment, this clearly did not mean they had more grit and determination than their parents. It was simply due to increased opportunities. Even if we acknowledge that as a matter of definition not everyone can be above average, and that only a minority will achieve high success, in a fully working meritocracy social mobility, both upwards and downwards, would be commonplace, and we wouldn’t feel the need to look for inspiration to those role models with their high levels of grit and determination. The journey from rags to riches would no longer be noteworthy.

A third form of the argument is seen in the issue of obesity, which has become a public health crisis. At one level it might seem that this is just a matter of too many people making unhealthy food choices. Government’s role here is perhaps to educate, but ultimately if people persist in making the wrong choices there’s nothing that can be done other than bemoan their bad eating habits. The issue here then is not that individual action would not tackle the problem, but that actually conceiving the problem as one of individual choice is misguided. A simple historical comparison should make this clear. Our grandparents’ generation did not have an obesity problem. If obesity is reduced simply to personal choices, we have to conclude that we as a generation simply make unhealthy food choices. But is it really plausible to claim that some generations are more responsible in their choices than others? Surely this is to make a category mistake; individuals can be either responsible or irresponsible, but not generations. The obvious explanation is that the culture, advertising, pricing, the types of foods available and the food industry itself was quite different in the past. If we magically transported a child from a previous generation into the present, they would be just as likely to suffer from obesity as someone born today. None of this means that people should not take responsibility for their food choices, but it does mean that the obesity crisis today cannot be explained simply by the individual’s bad choices. The solution must involve changing the food environment in which we live, and this is something only governments can do. There is some similarity here with the claim “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, as if high levels of gun crime in the US could be reduced simply to bad people making bad choices and the wide availability of guns was an irrelevance.

Unlike the issues we have looked at so far which involve problems directly impacting the individual – whether it be the cost of living, unaffordable housing, social mobility or obesity – the final form of the argument I want to highlight concerns a moral imperative we feel towards others, particularly those of future generations. It is sometimes argued that pollution and the climate emergency are about our individual actions, we, as individuals, making the right choices within our own lives rather than expecting governments and international bodies to come up with solutions. As with the other examples, this is an attempt to reduce a society-wide problem to one of individual action. Of course we ought to make decisions to live in as environmentally friendly a way as possible, but this will never solve the problem. Firstly, we are not experts on which are the greenest choices to make. And, as members of the public, we are easily manipulated; how are we to know, for example, whether the products we purchase that are presented as ‘green’ really are green?  Secondly, preserving the environment is an issue where consequences, rather than good intentions, are paramount. With regard to pollution and climate change there’s no point in having the best intentions if our actions are ineffectual, and leaving this to personal choice is going to be ineffectual, if only because the green option is never going to be universally adopted. The wearing of seat belts had to be made compulsory before it had a major effect on road deaths. And thirdly, green options actually have to be available before they can be chosen. Public pressure no doubt does lead private companies to offer green options in their products, but given that their primary motive is profit, any options that might threaten the bottom line are unlikely to see the light of day. Government must be the main driver here.

Individual liberty is vital for a healthy society, but it’s pointless to blame social problems on the ways individuals choose to use that liberty. Liberty does not exist in a vacuum but in the particular conditions existing within a society, conditions that can make life either better or worse. And it is these conditions, whether economic, legal, cultural, educational, social, or media related, which affect the choices people make, how they act and whether they have a better chance of living good lives that are sustainable into the future. Governments cannot control all of these conditions, but they can certainly have a significant influence on them, and it is surely their duty to strive to improve these conditions so that people can make the best of their liberty. There’s nothing sinister in this; it is not social engineering provided that governments themselves are democratically accountable. What’s far more sinister is the unaccountable power exerted by the tech companies and giant media corporations. Active government and individual liberty are not opposed, as the libertarian would have us believe. They are complementary, and the latter can only be fully realized through the former. But an active government is certainly not one that berates people for acting the ‘wrong’ way, and blaming whole groups of people for wider societal problems most certainly leads into a blind alley.