November 24, 2006 1 Comment
An old buddy of mine who perhaps still suffers from an arrogant ignorance of history recently declined an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner by launching into a knee-jerk PC rant about “the European slaughter of Native Americans.”
I guess he doesn’t realize that different groups of European-descended Americans treated different groups of American Indians quite differently in different centuries. In short, he was confusing the peaceful relations between Indians and Puritans in the 17th century with the much more brutal Indian relations of the 19th century.
Someone needs to read Tom Woods’s Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. (Which is a weird book, by the way, because it’s libertarian or classical liberal up through the middle of the 20th century and then suddenly turns conservative, treating the Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan with something less than the opprobrium they deserve. The Clinton administration’s attacks on state sovereignty concerning socially conservative issues such as immigration and welfare are rightly attacked, but completely unmentioned are the same administration’s attacks on state rights over medical marijuana or assisted suicide. Still, the book is well worth reading and knowing.)
Or maybe this guy was putting on an act. I mean the Thanksgiving/Indian slaughter conflation is such a cartoon of buffoonish political correctness that it’s a little hard to believe. On the other hand, I encounter self-righteous ignorance about Amerindians pretty consistently.
One example from a few years back came in the form of an email to BlackCrayon.com about the dangers of individualism. I’m still 90% pleased with my reply.
Unfortunately for me, I’m on record with a bit of arrogant ignorance of my own on the nature of corporations. I just have to apologize, recant, and focus on the solid points. Here is a lightly edited version of what I said:
Thank you for writing.
I will try to reply to some of your specific points this week.
For a quick preview, I’ll say that your subject heading, “individualists vs. socialists”, crosses logical categories. I myself am not always diligent in maintaining the distinction, but I will try to be in my replies.
When talking with someone about disagreements in anything that might loosely be called “politics”, I try to
- define terms, and
- separate the principled from the practical,
or what might be called (a) philosophical / moral / ethical / ideological concerns from (b) strategic / pragmatic / economic / consequentialist concerns.
Strictly speaking, then, individualism is a philosophical position, whose opposite is collectivism, while socialism is an economic position, whose opposite is propertarianism, or the advocacy of private property.
There are those who argue that socialism is the necessary result of collectivism, and likewise with private property and individualism, but the logical distinction holds, even if the pairs are empirically combined.
I suspect that it would be good to start our conversation with individualism versus collectivism, rather than private property versus socialism.
In my experience and observation, most debates or disagreements fail to get off the ground, because the different “sides” aren’t speaking the same language. We need to avoid being trapped by our connotations.
I define terms for their distinctions and consistency as well as their ability to communicate ideas. The problem with that is that we are most of us so mired down in associations and connotations, that the goal of distinction and logic is often at odds with the goal of clear communication. The two goals are potentially compatible, but the compatibility depends on our ability to overcome our semantic reflexes.
I have a very old friend (over 3 decades of friendship now) who I discuss all this stuff with regularly. He has been having with his family many of the same struggles and arguments that I’ve had with mine. One of the sticking points for his dad and my mom is the word ‘individualism’.
He reports his dad saying something like, “Individualism is just that crazy Ronald Reagan crap!”
My mom reacted similarly. For both of them, it is nearly impossible to separate the concept of individualism from me-first personality types, social darwinism, political capitalism, destructive selfishness, and the Republican Party. My mom, in particular, can’t seem to say the word ‘individualism’ by itself. It’s always “rugged individualism” which triggers an alarm for me that she is going for emotional associations rather than strict definition.
So what do I mean by individualism? I’m going to quote myself from the BlackCrayon dictionary:
As a moral philosophy, individualism holds that only individual persons can be moral agents.
It holds that rights and responsibilities are only relevant to individuals.
Individualism denies that there are any collective moral agents, and therefore denies rights or responsibilities to groups (but not to the individuals within those groups).
Now is that really what “goes against every community instinct” you have?
For me, individualism is the basis of community, because the word ‘community’ suggests something organic and voluntary and therefore something chosen freely by the individuals who make up that community.
Alternatively, collectivism — which is the default assumption of every form of statism — holds that there is such a thing as “society”, that it is more than a linguistic convenience for talking about a set of individuals, but that it has an existence of its own, and that its existence is in the moral universe, where it can have rights and interests and responsibilities independent of the rights and interests and responsibilities of the individuals who supposedly belong to that society.
My belief is that if something is wrong for an individual to do, it is also wrong for a group of individuals to do. There is nothing in the formation of a group or collective that changes the ethical rules. Collectivism, on the other hand, holds that if a group is large enough, it is subject to a totally different ethics. If an individual kills for revenge, it’s murder, but if the collective does the same thing it’s suddenly capital punishment. If an individual takes property by force, it’s called theft, but not when a group does the same thing.
We can talk about the philosophy behind private property if you want to, but for me the most philosophically interesting private property is oneself. Self-ownership is at the heart of individualism. It says that I own my body and my person. The society does not own any part of me, and when it acts as if it does, it acts immorally.
Notice that self-ownership says nothing about running rampant on the resources, as you imply in your letter:
Here’s the problem with individualism–one person can do a lot of damage to the resources of an area (say, whales, which a whole community may depend on for food). One person wipes out the whales to make money, while a hundred people in the community are forced to starve or move.
Where did you get the idea that philosophical individualism (aka individual self-ownership) sanctions the behavior you describe? Individualism does not condone all possible individual behavior any more than collectivism condones all possible collective behavior.
Again, I’d like to discuss private property with you from a strategic or economic perspective some other time, but for now, I want to address what I see as mistakes in your definitions:
The problem I have is that, if you have “private property” rights, it necessarily means you must either (1) use some sort of force to keep someone else from taking ownership of the property, or (as is more often used) take the property from someone else by the use of force, or (2) use some sort of “cooperative” process to negotiate ownership, which would be a form of socialist anarchism by definition.
I’m going to address this piece by piece.
(1)(a) You say that your first problem with private property is that it requires force to defend it from outsiders. This is also true of collective or communal property. If you are a pacifist, then you should object to the group’s defense of property as much as an individual’s. I am not a pacifist. I see a critical difference between the initiation of force and the defensive use of force. If I break into my neighbor’s house and shoot him when he tries to stop me, that is morally very different from his shooting me to stop what I’m doing. I see my behavior as the intruder as reprehensible, and his behavior as the defender as justified.
(1)(b) You say that it is often the case that private property is taken by force from someone else. This is a violation of private property. You can’t point to theft — an act against private property — as any sort of evidence against the legitimacy of property itself.
(2) You claim that a “cooperative” process of negotiation is socialist by definition. I certainly disagree.
The term ‘cooperative’ has different possible meanings, which I’ll review, but by claiming that it is the only alternative to 1a and 1b, you are implying that you mean the term to cover all its divergent meanings.
- Cooperative sometimes means centrally planned for a group’s organization or behavior. Cooperative as the opposite of competitive. (And as I assume you know from Environmental Science, the distinction is often artificial. Cooperation and competition are part of the same ecological processes.) This anti-competition definition is the one that’s tied to socialism.
- But “cooperative” also means a voluntary exchange or a voluntary organization. From the individualist perspective, something is only voluntary if all individuals involved have agreed to do it. By this understanding, the free market is cooperative, as is laissez-faire capitalism.
I do not believe, as you seem to claim, that anti-competitive cooperation (e.g., strategic socialism) is the only alternative to violent conflict.
Neither is the economic concept of individually held private property somehow anti-community. It depends on community: if I claim a patch of land, post No Trespassing signs, and shoot at strangers, I have occupied a territory, but I do not have private property in the free-market sense. Private property involves holding title to that patch of land, and holding title is something that can only be negotiated with a larger community. It is the title that allows me to use my property in voluntary exchange. Where individualism comes in to all this is in the claim that only individuals can ultimately be held responsible for property titles and only individuals can be said to have property rights. State-based capitalism relies on the legal treatment of a fictional collective entity — the corporation — as an individual. Corporate capitalism is antithetical to philosophical individualism. (So much for the association between individualism and “that Ronald Reagan crap”.) My problem with state socialism is the same as my problem with state-based, political capitalism: they both treat a collective as the relevant moral agent.
I look to the American Indians, who couldn’t understand the idea of “ownership” of the land.
I think you need to do more research on Indians and property. I think all us 30-somethings grew up hearing this claim, but I don’t think it turns out to be true. I’m crossing over briefly into economics here, but before doing the research, I would guess that the Indians treated land that was relatively abundant as unowned (as we still treat most of the ocean) and that they would treat any resources they perceived with more relative scarcity — including certain types of land — as private property (the way we treat much of the beach). Having made that prediction, I then did some very quick, very rudimentary research, and found indications that that prediction is correct. Different tribes had different amounts of private property, very much connected with their relative perceptions of abundance and scarcity of various resources. I’m not denying that many Indian tribes were collectivist. I simply don’t know. But I am denying that they couldn’t understand the idea of “ownership” of land.
(By the way, the first European settlers did not have private property. Their farms were communal and they almost starved to death. When the governor declared (or perhaps recognized) the settlers’ rights to private property, and the product of their labor, the famines vanished. I don’t know how this compares with the experience of the Indians nearby and on similar land, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that individuals claimed the right to the product of their labor.)
But I’ve drifted over into economics, and I want to focus on ethics. From an ethical/philosophical perspective I would judge the Indians the same way I judge anyone: who was acknowledged to have rights? To what extent was aggression tolerated or condoned? Were peaceful individuals left in peace?
Individualist libertarianism is that very position: that peaceful individuals should be left in peace.
Philosophical collectivism is the basis for claims that peaceful individuals might have obligations that they never agreed to, obligations that legitimize the initiation of force against those individuals. Collectivism is the claim that the rights of those peaceful individuals are secondary to the “rights” of “society”.
To me, the only way is communal living where we all cooperate to determine who gets to use what land in what ways. If you don’t like it, you have the option of staying and complaining or leaving and finding your own piece of land. The process of negotiation can take as long as needed. I have seen intentional communities that get by rather well with this philosophy.
I have no problem with intentional communities. I lived on a kibbutz for half a year, and I loved it. I have no problem with any voluntary form of socialism — not from an ethical point of view. (I may make certain economic predictions about their viability, but that’s a completely separate subject.) My brief, personal experience of voluntary socialism was overwhelmingly positive.
But you mention the individual having the option of staying and negotiating or leaving to find another piece of land. If I am that individual, and I find my own piece of land, does the community recognize my claim to private property? Or do they hold out the option of “eminent domain”. In other words, am I temporarily occupying territory outside their current focus, or do they recognize that my land is outside their authority? If the former, then I see the commune as a mini-State, and I object to its coercive authority as I object to all coercive authority. If the latter, then I’m asking you to recognize that that commune is acting on the principles of philosophical individualism, not collectivism.
Strategic collectivism is not at odds with philosophical individualism. And I maintain that any strategic collective can only be called voluntary if it is consistent with philosophical individualism. The only relevant question is: whose choice is it?
The idea of “individualism” goes against every community instinct in my body, as I believe humans were meant to live in community with each other, not isolation. It doesn’t have to be by force. It can be a choice.
Individualism is, as I have said, the basis for voluntary community, not its antithesis. You seem to think individualism requires isolation. Individualism has nothing to do with personal isolation, except that isolation should be recognized as a legitimate option for any individual. It’s the individual right to choose that is at the heart of individualism, not which option the individual then chooses.