Monday, May 16, 2011

Individualism Isn’t Ridiculous

Tibor R. Machan*

Some critics of individualism propose an alternative social philosophy and defend it so it is then possible to compare their case to the individualist position. But more often than not what critics do is caricature individualism, suggesting that individualist believe that people are autonomous, meaning, exist all on their own with no need for anyone else. Or they claim individualism means that no one has any moral responsibilities toward anyone else. Or that everyone is basically self-sufficient or should be.

Now clearly very young people have to have the support of their parents, at least, and their intimates so as to get on in life. As they grow up the support they enjoy can gradually be made optional--some support will be rejected by them, as when they refuse to follow their parents’ religious or political guidance. Yet, how would one acquire something as important as one’s language and other skills if there were no teachers about to lend a hand?

Our obvious connections to many, many other people certainly cannot reasonably be denied; so by alleging that individualism requires one to believe in people’s radical independence the critics have their victory via distortion, without actually having to make out a better case. Moreover they leave the impression that their preferred alternative, whereby we all belong to society and owe everything to it, is the only one and is trouble free.

But the kind of individualism that sensible individualists champion isn’t some ridiculous notion that people can grow up and live as hermits. Even if in some very rare cases this were possible, it is surely not the sort of individualism that is promoted in social political philosophy (e.g., by the likes of John Locke, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand). Such individualism focuses on the moral and intellectual sovereignty of people; they need to make choices, and be free to do so, about how to act in much of their lives which they are normally equipped to do. And they need to be able to assess ideas propounded to them by others, make sure these are sound ones and not have them shoved down their throats as is done in more or less Draconian tyrannies.

This is the kind of individualism that’s advanced by reasonable individualists and if it is a good idea, it implies that a decent human community, a just one, needs to be so conceived that people can indeed enjoy sovereignty, that when they join others in various endeavors they do this of their own free will, voluntarily and not be treated like military conscripts (or termites or ants whose identity consists entirely of being tied to others of their species).

A very important point to keep in mind is that individualism isn’t at all the same as forswearing the company of others. What individualism implies is that everyone needs to be free to select those with whom one will associate, be this in adult family life, in friendship, in professional life, in sports and in recreation. Unlike the associations typical of a place like North Korea--and the military of many Western countries--as the individualist sees it adult human beings ought to exercise discretion when they join up with others. Some of this, of course, can misfire--e.g., when one let’s oneself be guided by irrational prejudices such as race or national background (although at times these are mere easy options for some folks, with no malice involved). Or when one chooses to join criminal gangs.

The central point is that individualism prizes more than other social philosophies the personal, private input of all those who take part in adult human associations. These must all be voluntary, in large part because they amount to vital moral decisions on everyone’s part which one would be deprived of making if one were herded into groups one hasn’t chosen to join. True, there will always be some gray areas, as when one is “pressured” by one’s peers or family to be part of some assembly of people one would ideally wish to be free of. There must be an exit option for free men and women but it may take some doing to make use of it.

As with most matters in human life, we aren’t dealing here with geometrical exactitude, just as Aristotle observed over 2500 years ago. But all in all the individualist alternative is far more accommodating of human nature and social life than are the collectivist alternatives that get a lot of support from social philosophers--communitarians, socialists, or social democrats--these days.

*Machan is the author of Classical Individualism (Routledge, 1998). He teaches at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He blogs at

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Some Serious Flaws of Egalitarianism

Tibor R. Machan

Egalitarianism teaches that everyone deserves to be treated with equal consideration and respect. Mostly this is meant to stress how everyone should be provided (as a matter of public policy) with basic necessities like food, health care, schooling, etc. But that is too selective and excludes millions who would much rather gain equal provisions of different goods and services--say to exhibit one’s paintings in a famous museum and or to star in a movie. Or why not an equally plush home or car or vacation? Why not an equally meaningful occupation or career? Why not, indeed, an equally happy relationship or life?

Well, perhaps because such provisions cannot possibly be given to all, in equal quantity and quality. Yet, of course, that very same problem faces egalitarianism when it comes to the so called basic necessities. There is scarcity in food, education, health care (e.g., in the supply of professionals, equipment, and materials), etc., etc. At any given time only so much of these benefits is being produced. Perhaps they could be increased with some nudging or outright coercion but even that cannot make them available to all and usually backfires so shortages are the result. And any effort to ration is going to involve major unequal features, such as the blatantly unequal power to impose the rationing that some will have while others lack.

These flaws of egalitarianism ought to be evident to all, especially to those who are familiar with George Orwell’s little story, Animal Farm, or Kurt Vonnegut’s novella, Harrison Bergeron, both of which are excellent depictions of the dystopian nature of any egalitarian political-economic system. But if that isn’t enough or has escaped the attention of egalitarianism’s champions, there are the zillions of examples from real life.

Consider something as simple as the provision of a forum for public comment on policies being considered by governments. There simply is no time for everyone to chime in, nor space. Even as egalitarian a forum as The New York Times must limit the number of comments it can accept from readers in response to columns published in the newspaper. (Indeed, some columns accept no comments at all!)

Now this may not seem as vital as getting an equal share of so called basic goodies, in fact it is. One of the most erudite advocates of egalitarianism considers it vital for members of a just society to have the opportunity to chime in on public policies. Such democratic discourse is deemed to be essential to justice by the Nobel Laureate economist, Amartya Sen of Harvard University--to see, check his mammoth recent book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009)? Only if men and women are equally free to give input when public policies are discussed are they properly empowered. Indeed, the term “freedom” for Sen has this implication above all--we must all be free to chime in when public policies are being considered. As Sen has said, “participation in political decisions and social choice ... have to be understood as constitutive parts of the ends of development in themselves,” development toward economic justice, that is.

But even if one were to regard such universal equality a good thing and worth the very risky cost of empowering government officials to implement it, it simply cannot be achieved since even mere participation in public debates involves costs. No country could afford it and, paradoxically, it would consume and thus diminish many of the resources that might be slated for equal distribution.

Take another case in point. People are always clamoring to be part of discussions, e.g., as they try to call talk shows or submit comments to the Op Ed pages of newspapers, yet there is scant room for them so only very few can succeed. Moreover, whatever goods and services are produced by people could not possibly be slated for equal distribution since there is no assurance that the producers will come up with the amount of these needed for such massive consumption. Just look at how few books get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review--something I am particularly aware of since it has never bothered to review any of my now more than 40 books. Where is the editors’ famous commitment to egalitarianism here?

Well, it is nowhere because it is an impossible commitment or if you will, ideal. (Only “ideal” assumes it is something good whereas that is just what is at issue--if it has so many inherent flaws, it is most probably a bad idea!) As it is often pointed out, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and while egalitarianism may be well intended by some of its proponents, both the process and the end result turn out to be teeming with disappointment.