February 12, 2014

Individualism or the Common Good?  We need both.

Individualism or the Common Good?  We need both.

By Brian Gallagher, President & Chief Executive Officer of United Way Worldwide


The economic narrative is changing.  Growth and recovery have been joined with talk of sustainability, inclusive success, and concerns about rising income and wealth disparities.  Working towards the common good is becoming a norm.

I heard it while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  These were the themes at the center of nearly every discussion there.  I sat on a panel that was asked to answer the question, “Is it time for a new American Dream?”  President Obama made inequality and his “Ladders of Opportunity” initiative priorities within the State of the Union address.

This is all encouraging.  There’s more than just a healthy skepticism about the sustainability of the recovery.  Leaders get it.  Inequality gaps have become too large and long-term economic success will not be possible without investments in people—all people.  What folks can’t reach agreement on is which principles and actions define the best investments.

There are differing views of the post-recovery road ahead.  Some believe that incentives and investments should be focused on supporting individual success and entrepreneurship.  Others believe that we’re collectively-bound to ensure the success of one another.  I’d suggest that ensuring an inclusive and sustainable recovery requires both.

Individualism is clearly important.  Achieving the American Dream has always been rooted in hard work and individual attainment.  Upward mobility and long-term prosperity requires each of us to take ownership of our success.

But even the most innovative and highly-motivated entrepreneur won’t stand a chance without the resources provided by common good investments.  Investments in higher education, space and engineering programs, public utilities and other important infrastructure, tax incentives, military spending and others afford all of us opportunities.

The President often refers to the impact that student loans had on his ability to succeed.  Would there have been a Google had Sergey Brin not had the benefit of equal access to education and public investments like classroom technologies and the Internet?  Oprah Winfrey overcame tremendous challenges as a child through success in public high school and an eventual college scholarship.

Of course, these are examples you know.  However, the success that I’m talking about isn’t just defined by ascending to the “1%,” but rather having the ability to have a job that supports yourself or your family in today’s highly-competitive global economy.

Sergey, Oprah and others had tremendous individual drive.  They worked hard and they succeeded.  That’s important.  But they also benefited from opportunities provided by investments in the common good.

At Davos, corporate and global leaders didn’t just come together to talk about means of increasing individual profits and boosting GDP.  Most were talking about shared goals, shared strategies and investments in the common good tied to long-term economic success.

It’s why United Ways and their partners around the world focus on education, income and health, and creating opportunities for all people to have a better life.  We certainly understand the importance of hard work and individual attainment, but believe that we’re all at our best when we’re supporting one another and encouraging both.

Individualism and the common good.  That’s the road that leads to a sustained recovery and long-term prosperity.  Let’s work together to create even more success stories.  Denying opportunities for some, denies all of us the lasting benefits of their achievements.

See the original blog post on United Way Worldwide website.


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