The Importance of the Individual

Earlier tonight, I read a post on Facebook (non-public link) by fellow libertarian Robert Sundström which contained, among others, the following sentences:

The individual is without doubt the most important entity in society. Only the individual think, reason and act. Only it know how to satisfy its wants. [...] A group of individuals are nothing but equal potential to spontaneous order and imminent chaos - depending on the formalization of the structure. There is nothing special about it - not even when it comes to an outcome of a democratic process.

This was said in the context of economic theory, where it is not unreasonable, but it inspired me to write a few paragraphs about a wider point that I have thought long and hard about. As I perceive it, statements of this type are often made as a kind of libertarian dogma, being applied far beyond the realm of economics. I am not accusing Robert of this, only thanking him for stimulating me to think and write.

In any case, the status of the individual is a core issue for libertarianism and I think many libertarians need to think more carefully about it. Here is what I wrote about it in a comment:

Individuals are almost completely defined by the groups they come from. Just think of language, religion, all kinds of values and other customs. These things play a much bigger part in defining who you are, than your individual personality traits or even your individual actions. For example, if you had grown up in the country-side in Afghanistan, you would almost certainly be a hard-core muslim. Your individual capacity to reason about such things and come to your own conclusions amounts to almost nothing if the comparison is between cultures, rather than between individuals within a single culture.

Human beings are flock animals, like chimpanzees. Not solitary animals, like orangutans. We are biologically hard-wired to live in symbiosis with with a small group. To say that there is "nothing special" about such groups is profoundly unrealistic. So speaking from biological facts, rather than romantic ideals, the flock/tribe/village/community is the most important entity in society. Individuals are secondary, since they are basically extensions of these groups. I also think it more realistic to consider the community to be the proper level of autonomy, rather than the individual, since communities are the only entities that are actually capable of long-term self-determination.

(Incidentally, this solves a number of common problems associated with libertarianism. For example, what about the individual rights of children? That question is based on a false premise - the much more important issue is the autonomy of the groups children grow up in.)

In my view, the root of almost all societal problems, not least things like over-sized governments, is the destruction of organic communities. The reason people are dependent on the state is that they do not have local communities to support them, which was the way things worked for tens of thousands of years until the process of civilization gradually shifted the dependency from organic communities to governments. Conversely, the only way to decrease dependence on government is to recreate local communities. It is simply not an alternative for everyone to create their own lives according to their individual preferences, because again, if you are even able to reason about such things, e.g. if you can use a language, you are already created in the image of some group.

Libertarians open themselves up for ridicule when they focus too much on the individual, because everyone else is very aware of the degree to which everyone is dependent on social factors. Instead, we should focus on changing which kinds of groups are considered important. Instead of identifying with nations, we should try to form natural-sized communities (30-100 individuals perhaps) which function so well that the government becomes redundant. Without such communities, removing the state from the equation might even be very dangerous, which is why I have stopped arguing for abolishing the government, to instead focus on building a good community around myself.

In answer to this comment, I got the question whether or not individuals are to be considered as insignificant, due to their biological hard-wiring, and the objection that the human mind is adaptive and can break out of specific influences. This is an additional comment I made with regard to this:

That the individual is not the most important entity in society does not mean that individuals are not important, and indeed, most great leaps forward seem to spring from the minds of individual people. But note that progress can only happen if the ideas of a great individual takes root in a well-functioning group, i.e. when a community starts pursuing the ideas together.

A point I was trying to make is that your ability to "break out from specific influences" is very limited, since all your ideas, even about the concepts of influence, breaking out etc is very tightly connected to what culture you grew up in. Sure, you can change many details, but you will have no desire to change many of the big things, since you have taken them for granted since birth. Do you think you would be able to become a libertarian if you were born in a small Afghani village or in a stone-age tribe?
3 responses
Individualism is something that most all people have in first world countries. But why is it something to be valued? What is the best specific part about being an individual?
This is all well and good, so to say, but historically such supportive communities develop into unchanging and stagnant communities. They begin with good intentions, but with time the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. They are dominated, quite often, by powerful individuals who join with a few others to dictate to all. This leads to persecution of the few, different thinkers/behaviors, who are sometimes killed (think Salem), or driven out. The irony being the original group members were often outcasts themselves ( think puritans). The tendency of these supportive small communities is to increasingly harden and use the “belief system” of the collective to excuse their own behaviors( again think the recent disclosures that the Salem witch persecutions were directly connected to the desires of more prominent villagers to appropriate the lands of the less prominent. This, connected with the concept of innate animal territoriality, leads to terrible consequences. This can be seen over and over in histories of religious groups, co-operative living communities in the 60s, and entire countries. The needs of the few, individuals who gather together to insure their own greed but still plot constantly against those they have formed alliances, are supported by individual desires. In the US constitution “All men” included only those men who owned land and certainly did not enfranchise women, blacks, Indians and so forth. American society is steadily following greater and greater disenfranchisement witnessed by the continued discrepancy between the rich and the poor, street children, street people, homelessness, millions of drug dependent “citizens”, black incarceration, etc. The creation of a middle class, now almost non-existent, by lulling people to sleep with incomes that gave those workers enough to live the “good life” is evaporating and with it goes trust in government, any desire among even the most liberal to do anything for those with even less, growing anger that leads to electing autocratic leadership, self preservation ideologies etc. Jim Jones literally poisoned his community. But drinking the cool-aide that a small self-sufficient community is the answer is not realistic given the reality of the complexity of modern life and the nature of the human species. We are not very far from our roots in the caves after all. Afraid of the dark, the outsider, the boogie man. We make up outrageous takes about those different from ourselves and teach it to our children. We easily believe the other is satanic or at best out to get us. These tendencies are used by the powerful to manipulate us. The latest seems to be that those peaceful, unthreatening aliens visiting us in ships for hundreds of thousands of years are out to get us, ray gun us into non existence and we need to be ready to blast them out of our skies.