Must Libertarians Be Individualists?
One of the most common criticisms of liberalism — also known as libertarianism and the often-pejorative and vague "neoliberalism" — is that liberalism is extreme in its individualism. That is, its critics accuse liberalism of forcing its alleged victims into an "atomistic" existence separated from the communal institutions and activities that have been central to human civilization from time immemorial.
A recent example comes from that relentless — some might say "repetitive" — George Monbiot at The Guardian whose latest attack is titled "Neoliberalism is causing loneliness." Monbiot writes:
There are plenty of secondary reasons for this [loneliness], but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.
When Monbiot says "neoliberalism" he really means laissez-faire liberalism, which is why he attacks competition (presumably, market competition), self-interest, and individualism. In Monbiot's view, liberals believe happiness is achieved primarily through market relationships and by achieving greater and greater monetary profit.
This hopelessly shallow caricature of liberalism and laissez-faire would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for the fact that this line of thought represents a long tradition among anti-market leftists and traditionalist conservatives who often criticize liberals and markets for supposedly seeking to destroy all human institutions except those of the marketplace.
Two Types of Individualism
Part of this misconception stems from the fact that individualism can mean many things, and broadly speaking, there are two types of individualism.
The first type is philosophical or methodological individualism. For the liberal natural-law theorist, individualism usually means that only individuals have rights and can assert them. That is, individual persons have a concrete right to freedom or property or speech and similar rights. Referring to a "right" held by a group of people is really just a way of saying that each individual within the group has the right in question. But even utilitarian liberals subscribe to individualism. For them, it is only the individual who acts and makes value judgments. Groups don't make decisions. Only individuals do.
This idea stems from even older European ideas — religious and otherwise — about individual free will and individual salvation. Each person is morally responsible for his own actions and not those of others. This is why Western society long ago eschewed the idea of legally prosecuting an entire family for the misdeeds of the father or the mother. It is the same ideology that allows us to say that an individual's will must not be coerced even when the overwhelming majority says so.
The opposite of this idea is the assertion that individuals must submit to the whole or face the coercive power of the state. This includes the idea that the majority can rule with untrammeled power, and that whole families and ethnic groups can be persecuted for the sins of some of their members.
The second type of individualism is "individualism in practice" or the idea that one must be physically and economically "self-reliant" sometimes even to the point of physically separating one's self from others.
This type of individualism achieved its most full fruition in the American context as some Americans adopted the idea of the self-sufficient farm as a type of normative lifestyle in the 19th century. This was then reinforced by the romanticizing of the frontier, by the homestead acts, and by state and federal governments' methods of land-use planning which had the effect of discouraging agrarian settlements in the form of densely populated towns and villages.
The older model of village-dwelling farmers who walked to their plots each day was replaced by the isolated farmhouse, many of which were placed miles from the nearest neighbor. But, in the new way of thinking, an "independent" farmer did not need his neighbors, a church, or village life. And he certainly didn't need charity.
Later, this ideal worked its way into twentieth-century thinking and into the idea of "rugged individualism" which was stoked by an American overreaction to socialist ideology.
Indeed, the quest for functional individualism became so great in some cases that reformers even opposed voluntarily sharing living spaces with other families. Privately-owned boarding houses were condemned and were branded by many reformers as “communistic”:
As a University of Chicago professor explained in 1902: “a communistic habitation forces the members of a family to conform insensibly to communistic forms of thought.” Commissioner of Labor Charles Neill declared in 1905: “There must be a separate house, and as far as possible, separate rooms, so that at an early period of life the idea of rights to property, the right to things, to privacy shall be instilled.”1
Also attacked was urban living in general in which, according to historian Stephanie Koontz, reformers attacked
"the “street habit” as if it were a dangerous addiction, much like crack cocaine. To root out this addiction, Progressives promulgated new zoning laws and building codes prohibiting working-class families from sharing quarters.
Of course, very few people have ever actually adopted these views to such extremes, and this image of individualism has always been largely a straw man raised by opponents of liberalism.
Liberals Embrace the Social Nature of Human Beings
Even in times and places where extreme ideals of individualism-in-practice were relatively popular, it has never been true that the liberal ideology demands that people live in such a way. It is entirely consistent with the ideas of liberalism to live in a large extended family, to join a commune, or live in a densely-populated urban setting with others. All that liberals ask is that the decision to live a certain way is made voluntarily and without being coerced. A person commits no illiberal act when he gives away all his possessions to live in a monastery shared with others. There is nothing contrary to liberalism in offering free room and board to strangers or family members. There is no group or individual activity that is verboten by liberalism so long as the participants are cooperating freely.
In fact, Ludwig von Mises, whom few would accuse of being insufficiently liberal, assumed that individuals would come together to achieve common goals. In Human Action, Mises notes that "Every step by which an individual substitutes concerted action for isolated action results in an immediate and recognizable improvement in his conditions."
Moreover, according to Mises,
The advantages derived from peaceful cooperation ... are universal. They immediately benefit every generation ... [f]or what the individual must sacrifice for the sake of society he is amply compensated by greater advantages.
Mises then concludes that "[H]uman action itself tends toward cooperation and association; man becomes a social being not in sacrificing his own concerns for the sake of a mythical Moloch, society, but in aiming at an improvement in his own welfare."
In other words, even according to Mises, whom Monbiot has specifically attacked as one "who came to define the ideology" of liberalism, a society based on cooperative action is an undeniable good.
So where is this dreary isolated existence mandated by liberalism, as imagined by Monbiot?
Well, for Monbiot, crushing isolation must exist almost everywhere, because in the minds of advocates for boundless state intervention, human cooperation withers when it is not coerced by the state. For these interventionists, the state is the glue that holds society together and human beings are incapable of organizing society otherwise.
Monbiot fancies himself a pragmatist for recognizing the human beings are social animals who wish to live and cooperate with others. Yet, they're not cooperative or social enough — it seems — to do anything about it without the guiding hand of the state.
Contrary to this dark and low opinion of human ingenuity and sociability, Mises — like most liberals — takes a more positive view of humanity and sees no need for the state in bringing individuals together. As Mises saw, an ordinary human being is more than willing to "sacrific[e] his own concerns" for the sake of participating in the larger society "for an improvement in his own welfare."
Are there ideologies out there that encourage human beings to isolate themselves from the joyful business of working with others in schools, churches, businesses, and civic organization? Perhaps, but we'll have to look somewhere other than to liberalism to learn about them.
For further reading:
- "The Individual in Society" by Ludwig von Mises
- "Ludwig von Mises as a Social Rationalist" by Joseph Salerno
- "The Homo Economicus Straw Man" by Ryan McMaken