Essay - Individualism and America: The News from L.A.

In my parting note to readers as editor of this magazine ["Note from a Worldwatcher," January/February 2005], I wrote that my wife Sharon and I were moving from the East Coast to southern California, where we planned to build a house. Putting to work an abundance of ideas accumulated through my years at Worldwatch, I envisioned erecting a structure of native stone and recycled wood, harnessing solar and wind energy, and flanked by shade trees for natural cooling and of course an organic vegetable garden.

Now, more than two years after buying a piece of land and drawing up our plans, we still do not have a building permit. Our efforts to get one have been an education in one of the most fundamental of human struggles: the tug-of-war between the very individualistic desires of people building their own families and homes, and the powerfully conforming forces we create as we build institutions.

That struggle has always been one of the central themes of American political life. Liberals want stronger regulation of air and water quality; conservative business owners want the Environmental Protection Agency to get off their backs. On the other hand, conservatives want tougher regulation of what you inhale (unless it's just polluted air), or what you do for sex, while liberals want the government to get out of our homes and bedrooms. The tension cuts both ways.

Individualism can go to pathological extremes (National Rifle Association members attending town council meetings with guns on their hips) and so can institutional co-option (young Americans following orders to invade and shoot up a country they know virtually nothing about, for reasons their leaders no longer seem to remember). In a polarized country in a polarized world, it's hard to keep one's balance.

In my efforts to get a building permit, this tug-of-war has given me the psychological equivalent of a badly separated shoulder. Pulling in one direction, there's a great urge to get to work with my own hands-a very individualistic desire that may nonetheless trace all the way back to when one of my Homo habilis ancestors first picked up a rock and stared at it briefly. With precious little frontal lobe under his sloped forehead, he'd have experienced no dawning epiphany at that point-but the long journey to "what I can do" would have begun.

On the other hand, there's the County of Los Angeles, which issues building permits and enforces encyclopedic building codes of a sort that never existed for the first 10,000 years after Homo sapiens, the species that introduced civilization, shifted from nomadic hunting and gathering to the building of permanent dwellings.

The county will not let me place so much as a single stick of wood on my land until I have submitted elaborate civil-engineer­ing, structural-engineering, architectural, and code-compliance plans to the Regional Planning Department, Environmental Health Department, Fire Department, Public Works Department, Building and Safety Division, Grading Division, Geotechnic Division, Soils Division, Fuel Modification Program (brush-clearing), and Recycling and Reuse Program-and until I have had the plans officially approved and stamped. Each department and division has a different set of requirements, takes months to review the submittal, and then demands revisions and takes months more to review it again.

One of the most demanding of these agencies is the Fire Department. When I first approached that department at the county building nearest to our lot, I asked the official at the counter-a man I'll call Napoleon Burns-for a list of all his department's requirements for someone building a house. Over the ensuing year and a half, I have repeatedly had to go back to show Burns the changes I've made in response to his demands, and almost every time he offhandedly mentions a new requirement he has never told me about before. A few weeks ago he mentioned to me that before I could get a permit for the grading contractor to excavate the building site for our foundation, the Fire Department would have to inspect the contractor's bulldozer to make sure the bulldozer won't accidentally start a fire.

I asked him how to go about getting that inspection, and he handed me a blank form. "Take this to your local fire station," he said, "and they will go to your grading contractor and do the inspection. Then you can take the signed form to the grading department." I didn't protest that there appeared to be a small "Catch-22" here: you can't get a grading contractor, and thus be able to tell the fire station whose bulldozer to inspect, until you have a grading permit, and now I was hearing that you can't get a grading permit until you have a contractor. It was kind of like that line from the Eagles song "Hotel California"-You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Next day, as instructed, I made the 45-minute drive to the fire station in the little mountain town where our property is. The station, barely big enough to enclose one small fire truck, was closed and locked. No one was there. I came back a couple of hours later; still closed. I drove home, called Napoleon Burns, and told him what I'd found.

"Oh, that's just a branch station," he laughed. "You need to go to the station in Granite Hill" (a made-up name, as I still have to deal with these guys). This time, before making the trip, I called the station. I told the captain I needed to get a grading equipment inspection, and asked if I could stop by tomorrow.

"You need a what?" he asked.

 "I'm building a house near Granite Hill, and Napoleon Burns said I have to get a grading equipment inspection done by you," I replied.

"I've never heard of such an inspection," said the captain. "I wouldn't have any idea what to inspect."

I called Burns back. He told me, "That's why we give you the form to take to the local station. The people at the station don't know what it is, but when you hand it to them, they'll know." This didn't make any sense to me, but in California they say you're supposed to go with the flow. So, the next day, I drove to Granite Hill. This station was much bigger, but it was-yes-closed and locked. No one was there. Maybe they were at a fire.

This time I decided to call the Fire Department headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. After the usual 20-minute wild-goose chase on the telephone I was transferred to a man who told me with a hint of impatience, "No, no, that form doesn't go to the local fire station, it goes to your local fire inspector. The station has nothing to do with it." He gave me the name and phone number of the local inspector for our town.

I called the inspector, whom I'll call Michio Wicke, and told him I needed to have a bulldozer inspected, so I could give the grading department the requisite signed form. He laughed. "That form is a joke," he said. "All the grading equipment these days has spark arresters, and it doesn't need to be inspected!" He paused, then suggested, "Give me the address of your building site and I'll fill out a form for you and leave it for you to pick up." With great relief, I thanked him and asked him where he would leave it.

"Right here at the county building," he said. "You know, at the counter where Napoleon Burns works. I'll leave it on his desk for you."

Back at the county building, I met Burns at the counter and told him I'd come to pick up my grading equipment inspection form. As if I were a newcomer he'd never seen before, he stepped over to a file cabinet, pulled out a blank form, and handed it to me. I said, "No, Michio Wicke said he'd leave one for me that is signed."

He looked around vaguely. "I don't see it," he said.

"Michio said he'd leave it in a manila envelope with my name on it, in a wooden tray on your desk," I said. I stared pointedly at Burns's desk, which was completely bare except for a wooden tray with a single manila envelope in it. He looked at it and hesitated a moment, then picked it up.

He handed it to me without speaking. His face was as blank as that of my imagined Homo habilis staring at a rock. Later it occurred to me that this might well have been the face of any browbeaten bureaucrat in any of the endless successions of human institutions that have been launched with great inspiration and then gradually ossified into barely breathing hulks-the Catholic Church, the Soviet bureaucracy of the late Cold War, the U.S. government in the Age of Inconvenient Truths. As I prepare to build my house, I am still inspired by the "California Dreaming" of the years when I was young, and by the environmental movement that taught me how miraculously a great shade tree can provide free cooling in a hot climate. But I'm also under the shadow of the Los Angeles County government, which has decreed that there should be no large trees next to my house because trees can burn.

Increasingly, the institutions of government and industry assume that we, the people, are incapable of taking care of ourselves. And increasingly we can't, because there's a vicious cycle at work: if we're not permitted to do things we're especially able or qualified to do, we too often give up learning how-and if we don't know how, we can forget about being permitted.

Consider, for example, the great debate about health care costs. It's rarely suggested that a huge portion of those costs-I'd guess 90 percent-could be eliminated if everyone took responsibility for the life-saving actions that could be taken virtually for free, using knowledge that is widely available. For example, we could stop eating foods containing hydrogenated fats. (In fact, we could have done this about 40 years ago; the knowledge that now has fast-food chains promising to replace the oil in their fries has been around that long.) Imagine how many billions of dollars would disappear from the costs of treating heart disease and obesity.

The trouble is, our tax codes and insurance companies don't provide serious incentives not to smoke, get fat, or abandon all serious physical and mental exercise after age 20. Our schools don't teach the most basic life-saving facts-such as the difference between bulking up muscles and building cardiovascular fitness. We assume the doctor or the coach is the expert on whom we must depend-we live in the age of experts (turn on your TV and see all the fitness coaches, financial gurus, celebrity chefs, home-improvement experts). The message we get is that we can't trust ourselves to get fit, manage our own money, cook an egg, or repair a hole in the wall without expert help. We are no longer the self-reliant, "can-do" people we were once so proud to be.

The point is, whether it's building your own house or taking care of your own health-or educating your kids or preparing for global warming, or any of the other functions now largely ceded to institutions and putative leaders-we have no system in place for enabling those who have the qualifications and desire to take on greater responsibility to actually do so. Even when we find ourselves in emergencies where we could offer skills that our communities urgently need, we're not always free to do so.

I'm afraid we can't survive, as a country or even perhaps as a species, if we continue to have our leaders and policymakers chosen by people who have not learned how to make reasoned choices. I know a man whose entire inventory of beliefs (he doesn't really have thoughts) has been acquired by listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. This man doesn't read newspapers. I don't think he has read a book in 40 years. He isn't a bad man, by a long shot; he's friendly and caring. But he believes global warming is just another natural climatic cycle and would be outrageously too costly to act on. He believes that abortions are evil because they take away life, which is inherently good, and that capital punishment is a good idea because the convicts on death row deserve it. He believes that we are all sinners (maybe he's right about this one), and that Jesus will save us. My problem with him is not that he's a conservative (sometimes I'm quite conservative myself-about the immorality of piling up huge debt, for example, or about the inappropriateness of some aspects of government regulation-see above); my problem with him is that if he just believes what he's told, and doesn't think for himself or even learn how to think, he poses a danger to society. Should this man's vote be allowed to cancel out Al Gore's vote?

I know, I know. As soon as I even suggest the idea of somehow requiring citizens to qualify to vote on critical issues at a time when the future of the Earth is in the balance, I risk being branded as an anti-democratic "elitist" who is against everything America stands for. But to anyone who takes that view, I have to ask: Why is it that we don't mind having people qualify to be a doctor, or the pilot of a commercial airplane, or a professor of biology? The quick answer is that all those jobs require taking responsibility for making decisions that are often matters of life and death. But how much life and death-not just for years to come, but for a hundred generations-will be affected by what our elected officials know and do about rising sea levels, mass extinctions, the vilification of science, and other subjects Rush Limbaugh doesn't care to discuss?

Of course, you might argue that helping to choose someone to do a job is not the same thing as actually being able to do it. Okay, let's compare apples with apples. If every adult with a pulse is qualified to help choose the next president, then surely every adult is qualified to help make personnel choices of far lesser consequence, such as who gets to be a doctor. Why not really embrace democracy, and pick our brain surgeons by popular vote? Of course, surgeons are selected by others, but only by others who have already established strong credentials in the field-senior physicians, or medical school professors.

What I'm working my way around to, I think, is the notion that if leaders were selected by people who have relevant qualifications to determine what makes good leaders, those leaders would in turn have far greater appreciation for the benefits that accrue when the people they are leading have valuable personal strengths. Institutions led by competent people will be less likely to waste human capital by allowing capable and motivated individuals to be marginalized. Competence builds competence, and the vicious cycle is reversed.

A lot of us have been frustrated by our struggles with bureaucracy, but in the end I really can't blame the bureaucrats. People working for institutions pretty much do what they've been trained to do, and if our educational system teaches authoritarianism, that's what we'll get. Instead of government "Of the people, by the people," we'll get government kicking sand in our faces. Or if our educational system teaches us to have dualistic views of everything from left/right politics to good/evil morality, then we'll also tend to believe there's a deep divide between individual and communitarian interests, when in truth those interests are two sides of the same coin. After all, communities are made up entirely of individuals (we've been distracted from this reality by a perverse U.S. law that gives corporations "personhood"), and individuals in turn are entirely dependent on communities.

I have no idea-yet-how a system for qualifying citizens to vote, or to help shape public policy in areas where they have real education and interest, could realistically be set up. But on the road from here to there, what we need our educators to teach is that the healthiest, most effective institutions in a troubled world will be those which best recognize and respond to the diversity of individual human strengths, and which give the people who can demonstrate those strengths as much freedom to deploy them as they can bear.

Ed Ayres is editor emeritus of World Watch.