Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Artificial Controversies

Tibor R. Machan

Enemies of the free society are prone to find something that will render the very idea of it not just odd but insidious. So we have one Gerry Stoker, writing in the January 2006 (issue #118) of Prospect Magazine that “Politics has been infected by one of the dominant myths of our time: that the goal of life is self-actualization. Politics as an exercise in collective decision-making has been unable to withstand the assault of a na├»ve individualism” (

As you might expect, Mr. Stoker gives no example of any thinker who advances the so called myth he sets out to deconstruct. In fact there have been very few if any individualists who have argued that individual self-actualization and politics are incompatible. And, in any case, individualism in any of its forms is far from dominant today.

However, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous Democracy in America, did grapple with the possible questionable influence of a certain type of individualism, speculating that unless it is clarified, it may lead people not to care about the legal infrastructure of their societies. But it is mostly critics of the free society who have produced caricatures of individualism so as to besmirch the thing good and hard.

Stoker appears to be among this latter group. It is a tactic that appeals to some—make individualism look something awful; then persuade us that collectivism is right; then anoint yourself as the voice of the collective, the royal we, and have your way with us all.

For there really is no collective humanity or society or nation or any such thing. That really is a myth. Individuals make up all these groups, as they do the tribe, family, corporation, team, orchestra, band, or what have you. What sometimes makes it appear that there is some new entity afoot with such groups is that their members do often embark upon purposes they have in common. But that doesn’t create some new being that stands above the individual members, not by a long shot.

Now what about this supposed divide between individual self-actualization and politics? It’s all concocted. In a proper understanding of the individual human being, one’s self-actualization includes the political dimension of one’s life. Just as one’s marriage, family, fraternity, and company all include one’s self-actualization as a human individual, so as a human individual one also needs to fulfill political values, needs, objectives.

It is only when one works with the caricature version of the human individual that one finds no harmony between oneself and one’s fellows. Maybe there are such individuals—hermits—for whom “self” means nothing but what amounts to one’s physical dimensions, what is found inside one’s skin. But this is an aberration. Normal people have projects that very much involve others, their welfare, their concerns, their foibles and so forth. The human self is a robust entity, reaching out all around itself to many others.

What is important about individualism is that it recognizes that the starting point is the individual, at least once one becomes an adult. One’s decisions, choices, values, aspirations, and so forth are the base from which the self-actualization processes commences, but never to the exclusion of the input from one’s loved ones and many others.

This is a vast issue and I am only trying to warn about those who try to create some kind of artificial bifurcation between oneself and others, including the society in which one makes something of one’s life. Watch out—what these folks are after is to rest the decision-making power from you and me and have it transferred to them, all in the name of some supposedly higher being, the public, society, humanity, or polity. There is no such higher being apart from the individuals who are its constituents.

Sadly the trick has worked all too often, ever since Plato’s Socrates introduced the idea that it isn’t you and I who are important but the ideal form of the human being, humanity! Since that time many have perpetrated the ruse of gaining power by claiming they speak for this higher entity—in Hitler’s words, Das Volk, in Stalin’s the proletariat, etc.

Mr. Stoker should be rebuffed good and hard by reminding him that individuals can actualize themselves best when they gain a clear understanding of what politics is about, namely, the establishment of standards that keep the peace among them all.

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