Individualism Hasn’t Failed Us

This article appeared in Washington Examiner on April 3, 2020.
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On Wednesday, the New York Daily News carried a piece bearing the sensational headline “American individualism has failed epically: The hard lesson of the coronavirus crisis.” The headline cannot be laid at the author’s feet — writers often don’t pen their own — but Jess Coleman, a recent law school graduate, is responsible for the op‐​ed itself, which is an indictment of individualism so flimsy it might not even stand up in Venezuelan court.

Importantly, now is not the time to spike ideological footballs, declaring that your favorite (or most reviled) take on the right role of government has either saved (or kneecapped) the nation against the coronavirus pandemic. We should scrutinize approaches to dealing with the disease, of course, but avoid incendiary polemics. Now is a time to pull together, and also far too early in the battle to definitively declare what did or did not work.

But that doesn’t mean we should let unfounded ideological attacks go unanswered.

Coleman heaps blame for coronavirus troubles on “a uniquely American preference for fending for one’s self, for weathering the storm not as a community but as a bunch of tough, free individuals.” His support? Anecdotes: hand sanitizer hoarders profiled by the New York Times, Whole Foods suggesting workers pool sick leave to help those who can’t work (without noting the company gives two weeks of paid COVID-19 leave), and a handful of others.

Of course, scattered anecdotes prove nothing, and if anything it appears most of us have quite voluntarily engaged in social distancing. Meanwhile, Coleman misses some big factors on the other side.

For instance, the very governmental Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration sent out flawed COVID-19 tests and blocked private clinics and companies from issuing ones of their own. The communist Chinese government hid the virus and punished the doctor who blew the whistle. He eventually died from the virus. And Italy, which has been a major hot spot, has a nationalized healthcare system.

But allow me to focus on the area I know best: education policy.

In Coleman’s ax‐​grinding against all things nongovernmental, which is how he largely appears to view “individualism,” Coleman attacks school choice, a term he puts in scare quotes to indicate how bad it is. But education during the coronavirus pandemic has benefited tremendously from the efforts and experience of private people, ranging from parents and families to big corporations.

Most visibly, the nation has turned for educational guidance to its relatively small cadre of homeschoolers — people long marginalized because governments have forced funding, and sometimes even attendance, at public schools. Cato adjunct scholar Kerry McDonald, an expert on homeschooling, has alone done interviews offering advice for a now‐​homeschooling nation with television stations in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., in the Washington Post, for WBUR in Boston, and more. And she is not alone.

Much beyond homeschoolers, Khan Academy is a private, nonprofit website that has been helping students (and anyone else who wants to learn or re‐​learn stuff) for years. It has quickly scaled up its offerings to meet the sudden explosion of online learning needs. How is it doing that? In large part with the financial help of Bank of America — a for‐​profit company. Bank of America is hardly the only for‐​profit entity helping to save our educational bacon.

Districts all over the country are dispersing Chromebooks, made by for‐​profit manufacturers, to get students online where many will use Google Classroom to continue their education. Zoom has become a lifeline for maintaining all sorts of personal connections and is giving its services to schools for free. Internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T are stretching to expand broadband service. And the list goes on.

Of course, no one’s response to this will be perfect. We are all in a steep learning curve about how to cope with a pandemic. But based on what we have seen so far, concluding that the virus has revealed “individualism” to be a failure is preposterous. Indeed, it may well be proven a crucial remedy.

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.