In today’s episode, Dylan talks about the system versus the individual debate. Are we completely responsible for our place in society? Can our individual actions meaningfully change the system? How do we begin to approach this hotly contested political football?
- [03:29] Things in the political realm that hold true for Dylan
- [06:52] The system versus the individual
- [09:15] On people who believe systems are paramount
- [13:44] The core of the “systems are paramount” idea
- [17:41] On the idea that the individual is paramount
- [20:18] On people who believe that the individual is paramount
- [22:17] Why systems and individuals have a symbiotic relationship
- [26:14] Why the system versus the individual debate matters when it comes to personal finance
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[00:00:00] Intro: Forget the civilized path. It’s time to break the chains of debt and dependency, take control of our financial lives, and live free. This is the Fiscally Savage Podcast.
[00:00:15] Dylan Bain: Hello and welcome to Fiscally Savage. I’m your host, Dylan Bain. And today, I wanna tell you about a conversation that I had over the holidays. I was in my grandma’s basement where we have our festivities for Christmas and my cousin is telling me all about a lot of changes that are happening to his life. And it’s noticeable to me because on the one hand, he’s on a soapbox pontificating about how lazy workers are, how everybody is complaining that they can’t make it today and really, it’s all their fault because they buy lattes in Starbucks and avocado toast, and then seamlessly transitions into complaining about how rent prices and the application process is just an oppressive burden to his family. And now that their landlord has doubled their rent, they have to find a new apartment and he just doesn’t know what else he can do. And what’s noticeable to me about this is there’s a great deal of cognitive dissonance that he is holding without even really knowing it. Because on the one hand, he’s telling me that really the problem that ails society is all of these lazy people who don’t budget, who can’t manage their money, who don’t wanna work anymore, and then in the next breath is telling me about how him and his family are systematically being crushed by the system. And this feels like two opposing ideas. And we’ve all been there, ladies and gentlemen, where we’ve been at holiday parties where — typically this is baby boomers. In the case of my cousin, my cousin’s actually younger than me, most of them are. But we all have that one uncle or aunt who will sit there and freestyle on what they see as the ills of society and then with a complete lack of self-awareness, seamlessly transition to complaining about the things that bother them. This is not an unusual thing and I think it’s safe to say that the majority of you listening have been in this situation multiple times and you may have even caught yourself in that situation.
[00:02:26] Now, on this show, I talk a lot about money being emotional. Well, another thing that’s emotional is politics. And there’s all these people out there that will tell you, well, my political opinions are based solidly in fact. You can go fuck yourself because that’s not at all true. People that will sit there and say, “Well, I only listen to the facts,” they’re never really honest because they’re not actually listening to facts. Politics are emotional just like money is emotional. And yes, there are facts and there are knowledge and there’s information that can be used to form a political opinion or a strategy for your money. But at the end of the day, the way that you handle your money or the way that you navigate in politics is going to be emotionally based. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s just called reality because the reality as perceived by humans is in fact dictated by emotions because the humans doing the perceiving are driven by emotion. That’s just how the state of play is. And so, when I talk about money issues, I’m going to touch on politics no matter what I do.
[00:03:29] And so, I’m gonna start off this episode by just kind of laying out a couple of things in the political realm that for me are very true and I would like my audience to understand this. I put a lot of content out here with the idea that most of you understand things like nuance and are more discerning than the average audience. So, number one: I really struggle to never take political sides because at the end of the day, political parties should not be things that you look up to. They certainly shouldn’t be something that you identify as. And this is one thing that drives me absolutely nuts when you have — on the one side of the political spectrum, they play a lot of identity politics and they really try to like see all these different identities and create this big quilt and I think it’s safe to say that the Democrats play in that a lot, too. But Republicans do this all the time. And you can just go down a street in Arizona, you know, during an election year and you can see all these signs that “Conservative” is like this tag they put on themselves. And that’s a form of identity politics, too. And at the end of the day, I look at that and go I’m not in either one of these guys’ side ’cause neither one of these guys are on my side. The side that I try to fall on and the side I try to advocate for is the average American. Or to put it another way, the people who actually put in the blood, sweat, and tears that make this country operate and make this country amazing. So, that’s who I side with. I don’t take political sides.
[00:05:00] That said, number two would be is that I do see things as combatives. I think there’s a lot of things in this country that are set up to be zero sum games even though they don’t have to be set up to be zero sum games. It is entirely possible to get us all in very similar boats and rise the tide and we can all go up. But we’re not all in the same boat. We’re all in the same storms and situations, but some of us are holding onto driftwood and other of us are in aircraft carriers. These are not equivalent things and it doesn’t have to be that way. But that is in my mind in my view, that is the way it is. And there are tons of efforts to divide us on a lot of these things. Like I’ve said before, the media has an agenda and that agenda is to make money and nothing sells like outrage and fear.
[00:05:47] Number three would be a pox on both parties. Like there’s nothing more obnoxious than somebody who wants to advocate for one of the political parties as if they are really going to care about you as a citizen ’cause they don’t. Fuck off with the culture wars. All of that is a sideshow to get us to focus on those things rather than the other things that actually make big differences in people’s lives, like the economics, the way the system is set up, how the money is flowing. Those things are gonna have a far bigger impact on all of the things the culture wars are concerned about — family functions, individual freedom, individual sovereignty, the ability to be recognized and function in societies, to be rewarded for your efforts within an economic system. All those things are not culture war issues. They are economic issues. They’re part of the financial system issues. And the fact that the parties don’t want us to look at that? A pox on both of them.
[00:06:39] Number four is that like there are great benefits that is finding lines of disagreement and then allowing great debate within those lines and then nothing outside of those lines of debate. And that’s just a form of bread and circuses.
[00:06:52] So, today, ladies and gentlemen, I’m likely gonna piss literally everybody off because I’m going to be addressing one of the most hotly contested political footballs that are out there that directly relates to our money situation and that is the system versus the individual. And the way that this is set up is that there are these great benefits to say, “Well, it’s the system. You know? That is the way that we structure society through governments and regulations and rules. And all these other things actually have an outside influence.” And then on the other side, there is “No, the individual is the measure of all things. And they have.” It’s presented as an all-or-nothing decision and it’s not. It’s not an all-or-nothing decision but it’s presented that way. And then we as people sit there and debate, well, you know, the system is crushing us or we just need to take personal responsibility. And then these two sides go at it head to head. The system in this particular case are the rules, regulations, and design of society. And I’m always reminded of James Clear’s Atomic Habits. If you’ve never read the book, 10 out of 10 would recommend. You can go to fiscallysavage.com/books and pick up a copy. But one of the points that James Clear makes in Atomic Habits is that you can create systems that will either allow activities to be easy or to have friction. And you want to ease the activities you want more of and create friction for the activities you don’t. I use this in coaching one-on-one all the time and trying to find ways for people to manage their money easily and then mismanage their money, it requires a lot of friction. But systems are set up like this, too. And you can see this in road designs. You can see this in how malls are set up. You can see this in how schools are set up. If you’ve ever tried to like lodge a complaint with a telecom, you know exactly what I’m talking about. They designed a system that makes it really hard to do that. And then when we talk about the individual, we’re talking about individual people as sovereign agents but they act within a system. So, it’s almost a chicken and egg type of thing. And it’s worth noting that individuals are sovereign to a point. And really the idea of sovereign individuals is a theoretical concept only. Human beings are not individualistic creatures. They’re tribal creatures. And so, those individuals make up tribes and communities within any type of system they exist.
[00:09:15] So, let’s start like looking at the individual bounds in which we allow this system versus individual debate to take place. And the first one I wanna look at is the people who say that the system is paramount. That is, that the system is the thing that’s most important and if we need to look at this system and change or break down or destroy or alter this system and that’s the only way for people to get ahead. Now, again, I’m not taking sides and you’ll — I will in fact point out where I am on this spectrum toward the end of the episode. But for right now, I’m just trying to establish battle lines. For the people who say that systems are paramount, they say that individuals will establish a system and the systems then rule the individuals, which in turn the system becomes the thing that dictates individuals’ places within the system itself. And so, this is the entire idea that your ZIP code is more determinant of your marital status and your economic achievement than literally anything else. That, ladies and gentlemen, is an undisputed data point. Your ZIP code in fact is determinative of the strength of your relationships in adulthood and your economic success. The other thing that people that say the system is paramount will acknowledge is that systems rule individuals right up until the point where they don’t. It’s just like a lot of things. Systems are agreed-upon fictions that we all comply to for one reason or another. And when they stop working, it creates a lot of destructive chaos. Money is a made-up concept, too. And if we all stop believing in the USD, the United States dollar bill, it would be a lot of destructive chaos and basically overnight. When governments, which are also systems that rule individuals, stop functioning, it turns into civil war or a collapsed society, right? So, these are things that are part and parcel of the people who say systems are absolutely paramount. And so, not only do they dictate where individuals have places within them but they also maintain things like order, they maintain things like prosperity, wealth allocations, resource allocations, etc. etc., etc. And systems once established are really hard to deal with. You can talk to any type of reformer — be it education, anti-poverty, family, social systems — they will tell you at the end of the day that trying to reform a system tends to grind people and spit them back out.
[00:11:40] When I was in education, I used to think a lot about how the system of education was actually dehumanizing and not useful for helping my students become the best citizens they could become. One of the determinations I came to was, well, at the end of the day, we can’t reform this system. You actually have to burn it to the ground and rebuild it. And what I was told by a lot of other educational reformers was like, no, you work within the system. And I — and my whole point was we’re using textbooks and teaching methodologies from the 1980s because people have been trying to work within the system from go. The system is dictating a lot of these children’s lives and the lives of the teachers in communities that those schools touch. And so, I’ll be the first one to fully admit that the system was ruling the individuals within the school. In fact, the system had an immune system that any teachers — myself became one of these — that stepped out of line was severely punished until you conformed or you left. And Rummler and Branche, which is a management advising company, has a great quote. And they say, quote, if you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time. And anybody who’s worked within a corporate environment knows this is true. And this is also true in basically any type of system and environment that you work in. You know that the best performers are rarely the people who are actually rewarded. That’s because the system itself is a bad system. And you can have the world’s best performers — in my world, you could have the best auditors or accountants — but if the system that they’re operating in is a bad system, the system is going to chew them up and spit them out almost all of the time. The only time where I have seen in my own experience where that hasn’t been true is when the performer gets control of the system and typically that performer suddenly becomes everybody’s least favorite person because they start changing the system, ripping down the old stuff, and putting in new ones to try to make it into a more high-performance system. You can see this again in education quite a lot, but it also applies in things like government reform.
[00:13:44] The thing about people who say the systems are paramount that’s really important here is the idea that individual action doesn’t amount to much against the system. And this is true if you look at the COVID-19 pandemic. Again, I’m not making political statements on that or the response. But you look at the pandemic and you can look at carbon emissions and you can look at individual actions. These things are — they’re just data sets. And what you can see very clearly is that individual behavior changed radically, particularly in 2020 during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. But carbon emissions didn’t actually fluctuate that much. And so, a lot of people who say that the system is paramount will point to these things and say, “See? The system continued to operate but the individuals changed and it didn’t make a difference.” And I use this simply because these data sets are very easy to find and very easy to demonstrate and are typically not that disputed. Now, whether or not carbon emissions are important, the particulars of the COVID-19 pandemic, those things are disputed, very hotly. But note I didn’t say anything about them. That’s an entirely different episode altogether. But the point is that if you believe the system is paramount, individual action doesn’t matter. All that matters is trying to change the system. And so, you can kind of see where the flaw in this type of thinking is. But let’s just keep going. These people will also tell you that the system establishes stories and approved paths to keep the individuals from meaningful action. And when you listen to this show, the introduction says, “Forget the civilized approved path,” like let’s take control of our lives and live free. Because the approved path for me, when I went through education, was, well, you study hard, you keep your nose clean, you get a job, and once you’ve done that, you will be rewarded with economics. You’ll be able to buy a house, put your kids through school, take a vacation with your wife. All of that was bullshit. And this — there was this idea though that, well, this is the approved path and you just gotta stay on it a little bit longer. Just a little bit longer. Just keep going. Just keep going. And all of that is the system coercing me into staying as a teacher, accepting low pay so the system doesn’t have to change or adapt. And so, that would be an example of the system being paramount and stopping me from meaningful action. We also have stories of the guy who made it, right? We’ve all heard like, well, it can’t be that bad. You know, look at Doug. Doug bought a house. And that one person who beat the odds, who slipped through the cracks, so to speak, we hold that up as proof that the system is fair and just when in reality, it’s probably not because the systems tend to be agnostic. They do exactly what they’re designed for. Education’s another great example of this. They’re not designed to educate kids. The education system is designed to babysit kids while their parents go and work and turn them into good economic units. Education is a dehumanized enterprise but I digress. In the end, people will always choose the thing that is illegal but effective versus the thing that is legal but ineffective.
[00:16:48] So, for these people who think the system is paramount, they start looking for first the legal path. They go through the approved path. And when they prove it to be ineffective and nothing changes, then they start choosing the illegal path if it has a higher promise of being effective. You can see this in both conservative and liberal groups alike. They both play in this world — everything from the George Floyd riots to what happened on January 6th with the insurrection at the Capitol. In both of those cases, it is groups of people saying, this might be illegal but I believe that it will be more effective than continuing to try to redress grievances in other ways. And so, like there aren’t sides on here. This isn’t like all the liberals are the paramount, the system is paramount thinkers. The conservatives are the systems are paramount thinkers. There are no innocents in this. Like this applies equally on both sides.
[00:17:41] Moving on to the idea that the individual is paramount and you can see this in thinkers like Jordan B. Peterson. Although I’m using a conservative icon here, there are plenty of other ones. He’s just in the news right now, so he is easy to see. But people who say that the individual is paramount, they say that the individual is the basic unit of society and therefore is completely and solely responsible for that individual’s place within it. This also kind of dovetails with something called, it’s called the just-world hypothesis. That is to say, if you are rich, it’s because you deserved it and earned it. You did something that therefore the just world has justly rewarded you for. And so, it’s no wonder that you see this very prominently in churches where they hold everything out completely and utterly on the individual’s shoulders but you also see it within corporations. Well, Susie got that promotion because, well, she was the best candidate. There must be a reason Bob’s getting ahead, right? Like they say that it’s down to the individual. And then if you wanna get ahead in these corporations, it’s on you, the individual, to take your free time to improve yourself and learn how to code or whatever it is that you’re supposed to be doing and then bring it back to the corporation to be rewarded. And, of course, there’s self-help advocates of which it’s always weird to me that I work in the self-help world but you can read entire books that will tell you, well, all you have to do is think and grow rich. Change your mindset. Well, the reason you’re not successful is you haven’t purified your thoughts to maintain the clarity required. Yet all of that is this idea that the individual is paramount. Also, MLMs, multilevel marketing schemes, they rely on this a lot, right? They’re a systematic entity that tells the individuals within it that is solely their responsibility to make sure that they can sell the products. And if anybody who’s been in like the men’s workspace has come across James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh. This whole book is basically about the idea of mindset and morality leading to good things in life. And I’m quoting from the book here, quote, man is buffeted by circumstances so long as he believes himself to be the creature of outside conditions. But when he realizes that he is a creative power and that he may command the hidden soil and seeds of his being out of which circumstances grow, then he becomes the rightful master of himself, end quote. And essentially, what James Allen is saying here is is that until you take personal responsibility, the world’s gonna continue to shit on you. And once you decide to take responsibility, the world will reward you.
[00:20:18] These people who believe that the individual is paramount will say that systems are made of individuals and if only the people would take personal responsibility, then society would be better. Literally every societal ill that these people see is a direct result of individuals taking individual action out of a lack of personal responsibility. It’s interesting, though, is that just like with the system saying, well, I don’t have to do anything individually because it’s the system’s fault, these people are saying I don’t have to do anything individually because it’s the individual’s fault. We’ll come back to that in a second. But I do wanna point that out. The other thing that people who believe that individuals are paramount will also say is that “the other side” wishes to rob you of choice and freedom. And “the other side” is just this amorphous thing out there. Basically the any idea that there is a system and a society and that we function within that system and society and that system and society might not be as just as we think it should be and that might require us to change how we live or how we act, they view as a personal attack against their choices and freedom. Never mind the fact that a lot of the things they say they want choice and freedom from, they already live in. They just want it to stay exactly the same because, well, they found themselves in a good place and they believe that they deserve to be there because society rewarded them for them taking personal responsibility and using individual action. And in the end, these people will say man is the measure of all things. And conservative and liberal groups alike play in this world. You see this all the time with liberal groups who will point to people and say, these lives are terrible because you are doing something or you need to be doing something so that everything else can be better. And conservatives do it with saying, well, yes, I raised your rent and now, you’re homeless, but you should take personal responsibility for that. There are no innocents in this.
[00:22:17] And so, it’s important to understand that we have been having this raucous debate between the two polls that were set out for us that it’s all the system or all the individual. And ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that it’s an “and,” not an “or.” It’s the system and the individual. Those two things, the system and the individual, are symbiotic. One does not exist without the other. Human beings are tribal. We don’t survive in solitude. And the system is what allows us to be atomized into our tiny boxes broken away from communities. The people who say, well, I’m a completely self-made man. I’ve completely pulled myself up by my bootstraps — completely ignore the fact that they’re only able to do that due to global supply chains, militaristic systems, the rule of law. And the list goes on and on. And conversely, you have the people who say, well, I’m completely crushed by the system — but you didn’t make your damn bed in the morning. The reality is is that those two positions — that it’s all the system or all the individuals — they are both wrong and right to varying degrees of the level of extremism they take in their relative positions. Because it’s not an “or.” It’s an “and.” Yes, we are individuals and we exist within a systematic context and there’s no getting away from that. We all know that a system exists and that that system maintains supremacy and that system will fight you if you try to change it. We also know that this is a constantly evolving thing and that bringing down a system or destroying a system or breaking it from the inside will just result in a new system. When the people say, well, we’re gonna get rid of the government. Well, who do you think is gonna step in? Well, anybody who has the wealth and influence to be able to do it is the answer to that question. It’s not unlike what happened with a lot of establishments of aristocracies. We all know that there’s a system that’s set up to encourage or discourage certain things. Car dependency is a great example of this. In the United States, if you don’t have a car, you’re not economically liable. We created an entire system where you must be dependent on your car. And those cars and the roads and the suburbs and everything else that goes with that creates a great need for constant levels of government subsidies — some of the largest subsidies in the system. But the system also makes sure we can’t see that because it points to cultural war issues like food stamps. We also know that individuals are the ultimate ones who have powers. The system arises from individual choices. This is how free markets work. And if you ever have read The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith says the word “invisible hand of the market” exactly one time. And what he’s talking about is that individual self-interest when we start to work within our communities because we — and start building the things around us that we wanna have, everybody benefits. That’s the idea behind his singular reference to the invisible hand of the market. But he was observing something we know very well today that systems arise from individual choices. If you wanna read more about that, you can go find the theory of emergence and just Google that and you’ll find a whole bunch of stuff on that. We also know that individuals exist both in and of themselves and as a collective unit. And people who will say, well, no. No, individuals get one or the other. The individual or the collective. Fun fact: this is what communities are. This is what neighborhoods are. This is what institutions are. This is what churches are. They’re a group of individuals that exist as themselves individually but also as a collective unit. This is what voting blocks are. This is why identity politics are so powerful on both sides of the political spectrum because individuals exist both in and of themselves and as collective units.
[00:26:14] And this is important to us on this show when we talk about being able to manage our finances to take control of our lives and live free because it’s important to understand that we live in a deeply anti-human system and it is on us to both acknowledge that and chart our way through it. We exist in a system and we are individuals. And it can feel pointless. If you go and read Jack Donovan’s A More Complete Beast, he points this out; that once the red eye in the sky locks onto you, it will just send drone after drone until the strongest of us are destroyed and it can feel pointless, so why bother? Well, because we’re also the system. Because we exist within context. Because taking actions will put us in better situations to address the system. There’s a hierarchy of service. When you have service to self and you’ve mastered service to self, you can be service to others. Once you have enough financial wherewithal, you can do things like go to your city council meetings because those are the people making the decisions and tweaking the dials on the system. But you’re not gonna be able to do that when you’re working multiple jobs and on welfare. You will do that after you’ve built a base for yourself. And so, it’s really important for us to not be discouraged when we have to be confronted with the fact that we are individuals living in a system. And both of these things are important. Moreover, knowing the pitfalls of these systems will help us avoid them. And I pointed out the idea of the story of the one who made it. And we can see this with all the Bitcoin millionaires and billionaires out there. Well, Bitcoin must be important. It must be amazing and there’s a great opportunity to make a ton of money because look at that kid. He did absolutely nothing but live in his mom’s basement and now, he has a yacht. Well, that’s a great example of the story of the one who made it. Did that kid make a bunch of money on Bitcoin? Sure. Was it mostly dumb luck? Also sure. So, buying into that story only stops us from doing things like getting our financial house in order, getting physically fit, taking better control of ourselves, taking control of our food that we put into our bodies and on and on and on because we’re looking to get the lottery ticket of Bitcoin instead because that’s the story the system has given us.
[00:28:35] The system is powerful. And on this show, we really focus on how do we use it. Because when I’m sitting there and listening to my cousin talk about how on the one hand there’s so many people out there who just don’t take personal responsibility, I find myself saying, yeah, because they don’t know how to. And when he says that he’s being crushed by a system that is not set up to help his family flourish, I say, yeah, and we should do something about that. And then I look around and say, well, but if we fight this directly, we’re gonna be hurt in the process. There’s gotta be a better way. And it occurs to me that when the barbarians came for Rome, they used the roads. They didn’t build the roads. They didn’t understand the systems. They didn’t have the military infrastructure to create the system of roads that the Romans used to move their legions and commerce about. But they used the roads to come for Rome nonetheless. And from where I’m sitting, more and more of us are learning how to reuse the roads. And once we have enough of us, we’ll be able to change things for the better.
[00:29:44] Outro: Thanks for listening. If you like what we do here, please hit that subscribe button. Leave us a rating and review. And share the content with somebody who would benefit from the message. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, all @fiscallysavage. And head over to fiscallysavage.com to get our free tools, suggested reading, and everything else you need to take control of your financial life and live free.