Another Modern Liberal Confusion
Tibor R. Machan
It has long been a central criticism of classical liberal, liberal social
philosophy that it is too individualistic. Critics have coined the term
?atomism? for their complaint?philosophers such as Charles Taylor,
sociologists such as Amitai Etzioni, and others have followed in the
footsteps of the 19th century German political economist, Karl Marx, by
claiming that the classical liberal, libertarian outlook mistakenly
construes human beings as essentially individuals. These radicals have
held that our individuality is central to what we are. Marx?s famous
charge against capitalism, that it is alienating people in all kinds of
ways, arise from lamenting this idea.
The gist of the point is that classical liberals or libertarians
understand people to be self-directed, self-motivated to enhance and
develop their own lives by taking charge of it and not by depending
primarily, at least in adulthood, on others, on society, and on various
groups. As Marx put the idea, ?The human essence is the true collectivity
of man,? arguing that people really are parts of a larger whole?society,
humanity, family, you name it.
Yet, it is interesting that one of the major beefs of those, mainly on
the Left today, who have sympathy with this outlook and, accordingly,
criticize individualism, is that the US Supreme Court does not recognize
privacy as a fundamental individual right. Be it in connection with the
abortion debate, homosexuality, or various civil liberties issues, the
critics of the conservative wing of the court?who are sympathetic with the
political Left?constantly stress the importance of the right to privacy.
Now if there is anything in the American political tradition that
encourages individual independence, the right to privacy?founded, in fact,
on that famous capitalist institution, the right to private property?is
certainly at the top of the list. If one is free to withdraw to one?s own
sphere?free to associate only with those one chooses as friends and keep
to oneself and be private rather than open himself or herself to various
groups and be public?that certainly would tend to make atomism a
possibility. (Classical liberals and libertarians, however, maintain that
this charge of atomism is bogus?the only thing they oppose is forced
membership in groups, not a great variety of voluntary associations among
This current championing of the right to privacy by the Left is by all
appearances quite disingenuous. It smells much like the Left's earlier
championing of freedom of speech, which in time metamorphosed into
championing political correctness, the very opposite of freedom of speech.
These principles often paraded about by the likes of the ACLU and other
Left or near-Left political groups tend, in the main, to amount to
temporary tools for advancing nothing but Left Wing power throughout the
country. How could all these socialists or near-socialists truly endorse
the right to privacy when, in fact, their social and political philosophy
does not even recognize people as individuals with a private life, let
alone a private dominion? It is as close to a ruse as anything can get in
the realm of politics.
Sadly, these paradoxes are not often pointed out in mainstream political
discussions, in part because both sides that dominate them?modern liberals
and social conservatives?are hostile to any type of bona fide
individualism. Indeed, socialists and conservatives are both against it.
Just revisit the quote from Marx and then consider the words of the most
famous conservative thinker, Edmund Burke, who said, most forthrightly,
that ?[E]ach man's private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only
when a man draws upon the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our
ancestors, that he can act wisely? and that ?We are afraid to put men to
live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect
that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do
better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages.?
Of course, the radicalism of individualism is undeniable but is it true?
Yes, it is?and everyone can experience its truth by observing himself or
herself navigating the world: Although we all draw on what we learn from
others, we ourselves are the ones who put what we have learned together
and make it work for us (or fail to do so).