Thursday, June 11, 2009

Communities for People, not Ants

Tibor R. Machan

No sooner does one speak up in support of individualism than some clever folks will accuse one with wanting to isolate individuals, to destroy human community life. But this really is bunk and is either a misunderstanding or an out an out attempt at distortion.

Just because human adults require independence of mind and a sphere of personal authority, which is secured by protecting their basic rights, it doesn't mean at all that they do not greatly benefit from community life. There is little that's more satisfying to human beings than one or another kind of association they can forge with their fellows. Think of marriage, family, company, team, chorus, orchestra, and on and on with the myriads of ways people come together and make the most of it.

Alas, there is one way of forming communities that is simply unsuited to people, namely, coercively, when they are herded into groups they do not choose based on their own understanding and goals. That is very much what prisons are, involuntary communities, and the only reason they are supposed to exist is to house those among us who refuse to live peacefully with their fellows.

No defense of individualism except the crudest sort omits the fact that when individuals come together much of what makes their lives worth living is made possible by their togetherness. And, yes, at first we are involuntary members of one community, the family, at least until we grow up and have reached the age of free choice. That, indeed, is what parents and guardians ought to aim for when they raise children, to prepare them all for becoming competent, loving, responsible and adventurous independent adults.

Yet forcibly grouping people immediately undermines this by depriving the young of their opportunity to hone their skills at making decisions for themselves, decisions that are usually quite unlike the decisions others need to make. That's because we all are unique in many respects, all the while that we are also much alike. As one of my favorite philosophers Steve Martin put it in his novel, The Pleasure of My Company, "People, I thought. These are people. Their general uniformity was interrupted only by their individual variety."

Of course much of this is evident from the history of the more Draconian and brutal attempts to make us all one, such as those witnessed in the twentieth century but also back in ancient Sparta. But sadly too many people keep holding on to the vision of human associations without remembering that the "human" must be very closely heeded when one embarks on these. Human beings, more than anything else in the world, are individuals, with minds of their own which however much they learn from others must get into operation from their own initiative. While other living beings are pretty much hardwired to do the right thing by their nature, our nature is that we must learn what that right thing is and then embark on doing it of our own free will. This, mainly, is the source of everyone's individuality, while, of course, our physical constitution pretty much duplicates itself in every one of us (although even there a great deal is unique to everyone).

You might forgive me for bringing in a bit of personal history here but I do have some experience to draw upon here, namely, of having lived under communism for much of my early years. And my father was an avid fascist, supporting the Nazis all his life. And neither of these recommends itself for a promising human community life. Nor do any of the communities that try to go just a bit in their direction, figuring they can somehow square the circle.

Human communities are indeed marvelous but only when they do not squash the human individual. When they do, when they try to compromise the principles of individualism, look out. They will try to lie and cheat and bamboozle since only that way can coercive community life be made credible. They will emphasize the fabulous goals and forget about the vicious means by which they propose to reach them, like conscript armies or schools or any other collective endeavors do which we aren't asked but are forced to join.

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