Where is the Border Between Individualism and Sociopathy?

by Lanny Goodman on March 17, 2011

I’m puzzled by the political news.

How is it, given what we have observed even over the past two years, anyone thinks that businesses can be trusted to do what is right by the public?

I’m an individualist. I’m a capitalist. I’ve been self-employed my whole adult life. I believe in free enterprise. But I don’t believe that the stock market can be trusted without a strong SEC. I don’t believe that consumers are safe without a strong Federal Trade Commission. I don’t believe our food supply can be considered safe without a strong FDA.

Where is the evidence, that we can safely dismantle these controls (as ineffective as they have been in recent years) without society paying the price of insider trading, unsafe products sold deceptively and who knows what in our food supply? On the contrary, there is a massive amount of evidence that business cannot be trusted.

The reason for this seems simple enough. It’s called conflict of interest. The company has to make a profit, has to compete with other companies and sometimes it’s easier to cut a corner. It’s just the path of least resistance. If cutting a corner works and produces more profit and competitive advantage, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that corner cutting is going to quickly become institutionalized. And human beings intolerance for cognitive dissonance being what it is, that corner cutting is also going to be rationalized to resolve any internal conflict.

So why is enforcement of behavior that clearly benefits society as a whole seen as so egregious to so many?

It appears, in what seems to have become the dogma of conservatism, that government imposition on individual choice and responsibility is some how a constraint on our freedom. OK, I can buy that. What I have a difficult time understanding is, why is that a bad thing?

We are social beings, we live and work in groups. Dean Ornish’s important book, Love and Death documents many large scale studies that show the most accurate predictor of illness and mortality among humans is isolation. Is concern for the well being of all not important?

How then do we justify or rationalize this apparent one-sided pursuit of individual autonomy with the reality that our actions affect others? Are we to presume that the free market will ultimately balance the scales on those who don’t play by the rules of a civil society? Did Bernie Madoff not compellingly demonstrate to us that there are no practical limits to the damage a sociopath can do when there are no watchdogs on guard? Is $50 billion not enough damage to suggest that some more oversight might be appropriate?

Conservatism as a philosophy has many legitimate points. But it seems implausible to me that otherwise bright and capable people have so invested themselves in the mythology of individualism without any social constraint, that they have lost touch with human reality.

The normal distribution curve suggests that in a population of more than 300 million, there will be a large number of people who do not have the conscience or impulse control to do what is right. We have a major infrastructure to minimize rape, murder, armed robbery and other violent crimes. Why should we assume that we should not have an infrastructure to inhibit succumbing to the temptations that business people face daily?

It’s as if we recognize that we need the infrastructure to catch the dumb criminals (e.g. bank robbers) but we don’t need one for the smart criminals? Logic would suggest that we need a much more robust enforcement system for the smart criminals.

The rationale appears to be that such government constraints inhibit commerce, stifle job creation and make the country less competitive.


What has been the cost of the recent financial meltdown in terms of the cost of bailouts, the stimulus package, the collapse of the credit markets and persistent unemployment? People close to the situation have been shooting up flares for years, but we couldn’t violate the dogma by putting constraints on the runaway banks and insurance companies.

Ireland offers another chilling example of what happens when banks have no controls and are in bed with the government enough that the government was willing to destroy the country’s balance sheet by taking on the debt irresponsibly accumulated by the out of control banks.

In the current horrific situation in Japan, the effects of which will be drifting to our shores in the next couple of days, we find that the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant on the central California coast, was built a mile from a major offshore fault but was not required to have an earthquake plan. Local groups sued and on appeal (one of the judges was Antonin Scalia) it was determined that earthquakes did not have to be included in their response plans. By the way, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre (between San Diego and Orange counties in southern California) are very similar in design to the Japanese plants about which we are hearing daily.

With consequences this potentially dire, how could Pacific Gas & Electric not want every conceivable safeguard?

Newt Gingrich recently declared his contention that the EPA should be abolished.

Who in their right mind believes for a moment, that free of enforcement, companies will not foul the water we drink and air we breathe? They’re doing it now with enforcement. Does Newt get his oxygen and H2O somewhere the rest of us don’t know about?

There is a line here somewhere beyond which rugged individualism and the pursuit of freedom from any constraint becomes sociopathic. I’m not clear precisely where that line is and it’s probably not so much a line as a zone. But surely, there is a point at which a rational human being would say, “This person’s behavior is remorselessly self-centered with no apparent interest in or conscience regarding the impact of his/her behavior on others or society as a whole.” At that point we have crossed into sociopath territory and and any psychologist will tell you that sociopaths are a danger to the rest of us, individually and collectively.

I have a theory about this.

I think American businesspeople are creatively lazy. By that I mean they hate limits. Detroit screamed for years about gas mileage restrictions. Interestingly, the Japanese didn’t scream. They just built cars with better gas mileage and laughed all the way to the bank. The fossil fuel companies have resorted to astonishing and expensive disinformation campaigns to do everything possible to inhibit the development of alternative energy. BP got huge mileage out of their PR campaign touting all their investments in alternative energy until the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico when the covers got pulled off their deception and the real (and trivial) numbers were made clear.

Whatever one may think of global warming, it’s hard to understand why there would be any argument against eliminating the use of fossil fuels. Acid rain destroying forests, mercury in the water ways and food supply, ecological risks of oil production just for openers. That’s not even counting strategic dependence on and financial support for “friendly” nations like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

A full court press on alternative energy would create massive numbers of jobs and huge investment opportunities for the big energy companies. Why would they not support this?

It would require creativity. Creativity to solve the technical problems, creativity to redeploy and retrain thousands of employees, creativity to build new business models. Nope. They would rather spend tens of millions of dollars on PR agencies to convince Americans that global warming is a hoax (by whom and for what reason?) than roll up their sleeves and do what’s best for society as a whole.

This is over the line, by any conceivable standard.

What then is it about our systems that makes the people in these companies creatively lazy? Probably many things, but a couple of obvious ones stand out.

First, change brings risk. The capital markets hate risk. If they smell risk, they run away and take their money with them and stock prices go down. We in our society pay lip service to creativity, but when budgets get tight, the first thing to go is art and music from the school curriculum. Science and math are great things. But they are not the only “practical” things.

Finally, in most organization environments, people who challenge the status quo get punished. These huge companies take on a level of inertia that makes them virtually ungovernable.

Yet we have in this country, in the very Constitution created by the wisdom of the Founding Fathers both so revered by those hell bent on preserving individual freedom at any cost, the model for a durable, sustainable system. It’s called the balance of powers. The Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of government share power so that no one branch or person can seize control of our country and government. It was a smart move and a logical one as the Founding Fathers sought to learn from what they had seen in England and Europe.

Why then is this principle so intolerable in the world of commerce? Why should there not be a balance of powers between those who would exercise the freedom of the market and those who would insure that everyone plays by the rules?

If we allow huge corporate interests to take control of the government to enable their ability to get ever larger and more powerful, how does that benefit the rest of us? When big pharma controls the FDA (which they do), they get to load the dice. For example, drug companies do not have to publish studies that contradict the claimed efficacy of their drugs. They can publish the studies that support their interests and sweep any inconvenient data under the rug. How does this benefit society? Is this freedom at work?

Caveat emptor is all well and good, but is it not reasonable for us as a people to appoint technical experts to oversee the activities of other technical experts so that if we are prescribed a drug that we can follow our physician’s advice with some confidence we are not poisoning ourselves?

Freedom, individuality and autonomy are as American as apple pie. Our tolerance for social control is much less than the Europeans’. Imagine the outcry if you failed to have a dented fender on your car repaired and the police told you if it wasn’t repaired with in a prescribed time your car would be impounded? That’s what they do in Germany.

I’m not suggesting that. What I am suggesting is that economic dogma is a dangerous thing. When applied in the real world without thought for the consequences (intended or unintended and I believe both are in play) the results are bad for everyone. Philosophies require rational debate, discourse and dialogue in order to evolve and continue to validate their viability. Once they are frozen into dogma, they become inaccessible to rational assessment and critique.

Limits are good. We put limits on our children so they don’t run amok. Janice Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Limits force us to be creative.

Creativity brings good things into our lives. It’s time to wake up as a society and pay attention to the line between individualism and sociopathy.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gregory Taieb March 18, 2011 at 7:35 pm

The state of our country today is quite awe-inspiring. While I agree with every point you make and every question you raise, I still don’t understand how a nation of so many somewhat well educated people can either stand by as this happens, or much worse, stand behind it.

What’s ironic is that growing up I was always conditioned to be afraid of an Orwellian government that would censor information and control the population via military force. It has happened already all over the world, and almost always ends with some sort revolution; the most recent examples of which are in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

In America however, it seems like we have fallen prey to the exact opposite of this. The information we receive is not limited. On the contrary, we have the capability of receiving more information in seconds than previously ever possible in the history of man. The result of this seems to be that every news story we read becomes overshadowed by other stories almost immediately. Take the aforementioned revolutions for example. What happened to Mubarak in the end? Is Ghaddafi getting away with the systematic murder of the citizens of Libya, or is he close to stepping down? Or has he stepped down already? I can guarantee that if I ask any of those questions to any of my friends and colleagues, they’ll start talking about earthquakes in Japan. Or even worse, who got eliminated from American Idol last night.

Unfortunately the same can be said regarding the prospect of outlawing teacher’s labor unions in Wisconsin. Even though this was a hot issue a few days ago, I’ve watched as the reports have slowly strayed from headlines, and people start moving on to the next topic of conversation. Sadly, this will probably pass and by the time it does nobody will care anymore. It is a fact that there are currently 5 states in which teachers unions are illegal, and those states rank 50th, 49th, 48th, 47th and 44th in student tests scores. With information like this available, how can anyone even ponder the possibility of eliminating unions? They can do it because they know that although people care, their attention span will not outlast the process that it takes to prevent it from happening.

This is where corporations are succeeding in taking advantage of us. I know what they’re doing. I know that it’s wrong. But it’s Wednesday, and American Idol is on at 8, so I’ll think about that later.

In short, the answer to many of the questions that you ask lie in that fact that Americans are complacent and lazy. As long as we have our Playstations and iPads, and we can play Angry Birds while on the toilet, we don’t care. We should have cared when corporations that existed in America for nearly an entire century decided it was perfectly ethical to shut down US factories and start using cheaper labor overseas, leaving the people that were paramount to their success high and dry. We should have cared 10 years ago when banks decided that instead of investing in future technologies, they would create a huge real estate market and get every American in a McMansion. The fact remains that nobody cared at all, because suddenly they got to live in these houses that they previously couldn’t afford, and they got to own these products that they always dreamed of having. The saddest part is that you can’t even say that hindsight is 20/20. People still don’t realize what went wrong and why we’re in the situation we’re in.

For a hundred years we were a country that was always on the forefront of technology and production, and now what is it that we produce? Nothing. All we do is consume. Despite making up just under 5% of the world’s population, we consume 30% of the world’s resources. That is a pretty gross reflection of who we are.

Do I think that corporations need to be much more heavily regulated? Absolutely. I just don’t know what it would take for people to snap out of it and start defending themselves. As you said, corporations have already been poisoning our water, even though we have the EPA to protect us from this. They’ve been poisoning our food, even though the FDA is there to protect us from this. The bottom line is that our safety and protection is not at all in the best interests of corporations. If corporations had their way, America would be a third world country with cheap labor and no protection of it’s citizens. Their profits would skyrocket.

I’ve only lightly scratched the surface of a few small points of your article, and I just want to say that it was a great read. I’ve already sent it off to a few other people and I hope that they read it so that discussions can follow. Thanks for getting my mind going a little bit on this day in which I would otherwise just be soaking up the radiation that is looming over Los Angeles.

By the way- your paragraph asking what would be so bad about reducing our use of fossil fuels reminded me of a creat political cartoon which you can see here:

Hope you enjoy it, even though it’s kind of tragic.

Lanny Goodman April 21, 2011 at 12:58 pm

gregory, thanks for the thoughtful comment and yes i’ve seen that cartoon. definitely captures the madness of the times.

Lanny Goodman May 19, 2011 at 3:39 pm

here’s a great quote from Geoffrey James – comment on Atlas Shrugged, from The Seven Most Overrated Business Books of all Time.
“…corporations are natural sociopaths that can, must and will take advantage of society at large if not restrained by laws and regulations.”

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