individualism, properly understood

I have been rather harsh in my treatment of the “rugged individual” in these pages, and yet have come to an essentially libertarian position on most economic issues.  At the heart of libertarian philosophy is at least some degree of faith in the individual to make the best, or at least the most rational or most predictable, decision.  (Faith may be the wrong word….)  Still, I believe my social critique of the “rugged individual” is compatible with classical liberal economics (as opposed to economic populism, socialism, or distributism etc. etc.)

Individualism, properly understood, is a different animal altogether than the “rugged individual” of American myth – and even further distant from the entitled individual born into our own senseless era of wealth and purposelessness, severed from our communities and our history and our culture.  Individualism means more than what it has come to mean in either of these senses.

The “rugged individual” has been mythologized as the bootstrapper – the American business mogul who pulled himself up from humble beginnings into a position of power and wealth.  The entitled individual is spoiled, shallow, skeptical of the value of hard work, more interested in selfish pursuits than in helping others, detached from consequence, and possessed of an odd expectation that they deserve a great job, great pay, lots of toys – all for simply existing.  Both are examples of the so-called American Dream – one its myth, and one the consequence, perhaps, of that myth.

But an individual cannot be defined by the sum of his parts, or in isolation.  An individual is marked as such by his contribution (or lack thereof) to the larger group – the family, the community, the workplace, and so forth.  Contrast defines us – as does conflict.

My grandfather – a school counselor and carpenter and father of eight, who was perhaps the most gentle, kind, and hard-working man I ever knew – springs to mind as the exemplar of this sort of individualism.  He was simple in both demeanor and ambition.  And yet he stood out.  He shone.  The church was filled to the brim on the day of his funeral.  He had no enemies.  All his children were successful in life and marriage.  His six daughters each married good men, and likely that was due in no small part to his example.

He was rooted, too, to one place, to his community and his parish and his ever expanding family.  And yet he stood apart.  Still, he was no “rugged individual.”  He leaned on his family and they leaned on him.  He understood the necessity of the group.  The group enriched and empowered him.

And that’s my point, I suppose.  Individualism, properly understood, is rooted within the larger group.  The two are symbiotic – components of the larger whole, essential for the others survival.  This is also why economic liberalism and free trade do not run against the grain of communitarian sentiment, though many in the localist movement believe they do.  Free markets are not merely about individuals making choices, but about every scale of human interaction making these choices – at the individual or family or community level.  The alternative is not subsidiarity – markets are themselves a form of subsidiarity.  The alternative is central planning, or protectionism – both appealing yet ultimately failing philosophies.  This is another reason I feel that so much of the criticism of conservative economics that bubbled up after the publication of Caritas in Veritate missed the mark.  The Pope was not laying out a critique of capitalism, but of capitalism without a moral compass – without the essential safety nets and concerns for the poor that wealthy nations should embrace.

I am still a communitarian and I still have faith in localism whether that means your city block or your small agrarian town.  I still believe that the ethic contained in Catholic social teaching and in the many fine arguments found at Front Porch Republic (and elsewhere) which critique various aspects of our economic system is valuable.  Capitalism revolves around liberty, choice, and yes – greed.  And so a strong moral compass is essential to maintaining a civil and virtuous society.  But this cannot be coerced – not even through seemingly benign measures such as protectionism or other populist economic policies.  Nor is capitalism or modernity even at the heart of the problem.  Human nature is.  And there is no escaping our humanity.

I should add that while it is true that the discussion going on at places like FPR is vital and good, that the authors of these critiques should also delve into wonk-land from time to time.  Crunch numbers and do some policy research.  It’s too easy, contra Prof. Deneen, to make moral and ethical claims only – to “speak in terms of character and sin, and to eshcew [sic] our accustomed public language of technique and method.”  That’s important, too, but it leads to dead ends, to question marks and to the realization that without a focus on alternatives very little of substance remains.  What is the alternative to modernity?  To capitalism?  What are the alternatives, but more importantly, how do we implement them?

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14 thoughts on “individualism, properly understood

  1. Very interesting post ED! I think I share your belief that the FPR-type folks need to spend some time in the weeds of policy debate and reconcile that with their notion of ‘place’ and localism. While I think their goals are sound, the proposed methodology is a bit like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.


  2. “At the heart of libertarian philosophy is at least some degree of faith in the individual to make the best, or at least the most rational or most predictable, decision.”

    It’s not that as much as the malice that the individual is capable of creating is nothing compared to the malice that a group of people with decentralized responsibility is capable of creating… be it corporation or government.


  3. Isn’t talking of sin in this context encouraging local behavior that doesn’t resort to the institutional variety? Is the only kind of protectionism institutional? If I put up billboards encouraging people to buy Cascadian, is that fundamentally different than having my neighborhood association, city, or State (Province) doing the same? Do you consider resource or environmental protection, restrictions on internal investment, to be protectionism?


    • I’m not sure I follow. I think protectionism, broadly defined, is an act of the government which raises tariffs or provides subsidies to specific industries or players within those industries in order to “protect” them from foreign competition. Environmental protections can certainly be abused, the regulations distorted, etc. but they are not the same thing.


  4. I’m thinking of the problems of gradating society from the National to the family level in conjunction with the many different types of protectionism. Is investing in education a subsidy for the industries that eventually employ the students? Is the ban on exportation of water, or State water rights a form of protectionism? How about local investments in energy infrastructure. Can the benefits of that investment be kept for local populations? Down the road can that be cast as protectionism on the export side? Basically, I’d argue that protectionism can be more complex than a federal government imposing an import tax and that not all forms of protectionism are bad.


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