Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Politics of Individualism

Bill Vallicella is an individualist:
1. The individual is the locus of being and value. As important as groups and institutions are, they exist for the sake of the individual and his flourishing and not vice versa. We need groups and institutions to socialize us, thereby lifting us from the plane of the merely animal; but the true task is one of self-individuation.

I agree with that, as should be clear from my previous post. But what I find interesting (and a little strange) is that BV uses this individualism as the basis of his conservatism. He continues:
2. Accept #1, and you cannot be a liberal in the current acceptation of this term. Contemporary liberalism is scarcely distinguishable from socialism, which of course implies the subordination of the individual to the collective and the curtailment of the individual's liberty...

3. An economic corollary of #1 is that the money people earn belongs to them and not to the government. The individual does not have to justify his keeping of his money; the government has to justify its taking of it. Inequalities of wealth are inevitable because people have different levels of ability and make different uses of the abilities they possess in accordance with their free choices. There is nothing wrong with inequality as such.

But neither #2 nor #3 follow from #1. They might follow from a very different sense of 'individualism', understood not as a metaethical claim about the 'locus of value', but rather, a first-order claim of ethical egoism:

(1a) The appropriate focus of an individual's concern is on their own welfare, rather than that of others. We need other people to help bring about our own flourishing, but they only matter insofar as they benefit the self. The welfare of others need not concern one.

Now, I can certainly see how this abhorrent principle could be conducive to conservatism. But it should be clear that the individualism in #1 bears no logical connection to the egoism of (1a). If anything, I would argue that recognising the value inherent in each individual should lead one to reject egoism. After all, egoism fails to recognise the value of all those individuals other than yourself!

This brings us to BV's claim that liberalism effectively involves "the subordination of the individual to the collective and the curtailment of the individual's liberty".

Before I offer a substantive response, allow me a brief partisan rant: How are liberals curtailing individual liberties? We're the ones who favour civil liberties, remember? It's conservatives who favour imprisoning people without trial and shipping them off to Syria to be tortured. And it's conservatives who oppose homosexuality and voluntary euthanasia, and keep butting their "morally superior" noses into other people's private lives. [End rant. Ah... that feels much better!]

Perhaps BV was thinking of issues like gun control, where liberals tend to think that restricting individuals' abilities to harm others will make everyone better off. Is this ideal somehow antithetical to the individualism of #1? Quite the opposite, I would have thought. We take protective measures to help prevent harms to individuals precisely because we value their well-being! (Whether gun control is actually the best way to achieve this is a separate question.) As the prisoner's dilemma shows, sometimes the best results for individuals can only be obtained through collective means, where each gives up some contribution for the common good.

So there's no necessary connection between #1 and the thin 'formal' freedom venerated by conservatives and libertarians alike. But I do think it is supportive of the more substantive freedom advocated by liberals. Insofar as we recognise the value of individual persons, we should also recognise the importance of enabling them to achieve their goals and live a flourishing life.

This brings us to #3, where BV claims that individualism precludes economic redistribution. This claim is misguided. Now, I agree with him that there is nothing intrinsically bad about inequality. What is bad is the suffering of individuals who live in poverty and lack the options that are open to the rest of us. Redistribution of resources might help improve the lives of those less fortunate individuals, at relatively insignificant cost for those already living in luxury.

So I take individualism (i.e. the claim that the individual is the locus of value) as the basis for my liberalism. Contrary to BV's assertions, I don't think it supports conservatism at all. His arguments only go through on an equivocation between the 'individualism' of #1 with that of (1a), i.e. egoism.


  1. Quote ... individualism precludes economic redistribution.
    You say this claim is misguided .. and I agree.
    And I have to comment that there is a large theory of economic justice (first formalized i think by American Henry George) that explains precisely how a large proportion of inequality is not due to the different efforts of the individual, but to a 'system' which allows those who succeed to increase their reward increasingly out of proportion to their effort.
    Unfortunately by a process which reduces potential rewards for others -- by monopoly effects of ownership of land .
    Ideally, Henry George's alternative would achieve maximum enterprise but WITH equality.
    Which is too complicated to go into here I suppose.
    And it is pretty certain that his scheme is never going to happen as it cuts right across certain ideas.

    But it was certainly educational to learn about it.
    regards David L.

  2. Oh sorry. .. I should have been precise and said that the alternative scheme is not about "redistribution" but about ensuring the rewards a fair in the first place.

    sigh .. ther really is too much to say.
    more regards .. David L.

  3. I am wary of saying that "the true task" of cultural institutions "is one of self-individuation." As Richard notes, this prepares an easy downslide into ethical egoism - a stance that is all to prevelent in politics.

    In the vein of Rawls, liberalism is, I think, about the precarious balance of structural ensurement of civil liberties and justice on one side, and the pluralistic autonomy of persons on the other. To identify liberalism with socialism - or, rather to say that it is "scarcely distinguishable" therefrom - is an ignorant towing of the rhetorical line for the reactionary right. Liberalism has at its core a deep respect for the autonomy of the individual, but realizes the pressing need for this to be weighed intelligently and responsibly against others' autonomy, as is necessitated by a pluralistic - not just "multicultural" - society.

    As to Mr. Vallicella's denunciation of wealth redistribution, this is a primary manifestation of the egoism Richard points out. Money is a form of social contract or allegiance. It has no value other than its exchange in a social context. As it turns out, taxes are the cost of living in a society that allows for the autonomy of the individual, they are not some usurpation of that status. Of course, I would doubt Mr. Vallicella could agree with this notion, as he seems fixed on the idea that wealth is in some way an accurate reflection of ability and wisdom of "free choices."

    As with many conservatives' bashing of "liberalism," this guy just picks up a couple Marxist concepts and erects a nice little leftist foil for the justification of his own beliefs. But, as is generally the case, his argument does not address any genuine doctrine of liberalism, at least not that could not be deduced from the rhetoric of conservatives and neoconservatives on the television.

  4. Imagine that we rewrote (1a) as follows:

    The appropriate focus of an individual's concern is on their own welfare, rather than that of others. We need other people to help bring about our own flourishing, and thus egoism is the very basis of human cooperation. The welfare of others and the welfare of the self, when properly understood, will conflict with one another only rarely, and in these occasions a long-range egoism demands that we find new ways of cooperating fairly.

    This is what I believe--and it's also the basis of my political libertarianism. As such, I don't see anything wrong with saying that liberals are often anti-individual. Yes, they support civil liberties, but they do not support economic freedom, which is the basis for much more cooperation and mutual benefit than any state welfare program could be.

  5. Jason, how is it "anti-individual" (in the #1 sense of individualism) to oppose economic freedom? The liberal aim is to empower individuals to live flourishing lives, no matter the unfortunate circumstances they are born into. Now, you clearly believe that economic redistribution is not the way to achieve this -- that the free market would yield greater "mutual benefit" -- but in that case the very worst you can say is that liberals are simply practically mistaken about how best to achieve their (undeniably admirable) ends.

    By contrast, your re-written (1a) is still not so admirable. It still only recognises the worth of other individuals insofar as they can be used to the benefit of the egoist. Co-operation is good because it's good for you. The benefit to others is irrelevant, or at best instrumental to the later benefits they might bestow upon you in turn. But why not treat other people as having intrinsic worth, i.e. value in themselves? Why not recognise that their welfare matters too? Surely this position is much more consistent with the spirit of #1-type 'individualism'.

  6. Richard, your dismissal of egoism begs the question. It amounts to saying "egoism is bad because egoism places the individual first." But that's the definition of egoism.

    As a way to solve the problem, I would say that being a parasite is not a proper egoism. In the end, the parasite on others may call himself an egoist, yet his chief value in life is merely his host organism--the "other" he uses to survive. A real egoist would be more independent than that. Neither parasitism nor isolation nor servitude is the proper relation among men; free exchange is all that's left.

    As to liberalism empowering the individual, your point is well-taken in that even I would describe myself as a classical liberal--one who would question received authority and tradition so as to empower the individual. But when this process gets carried to the point of economic redistribution, it does start to look a lot like the old systems that liberalism was originally designed to overthrow.


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