The Social Harmony of... Individualism?
Despite its long and proud history, libertarianism, is woefully misunderstood and maligned by those on both the Left and the Right, and one of the common allegations is that libertarianism is about "individualism".
Insofar as individualism elevates the individual’s right to life, liberty, and property, and opposes all forms of collectivism, they’re technically correct. But the opponents of libertarianism aren't using the word "individualism" in order to demonstrate technically accuracy or respect. Instead, they're trying to associate the liberty movement with the negative connotations of individualism in popular culture. That is, they're trying paint libertarianism as a philosophy of selfishness, self-centeredness, and antisocial behavior. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Libertarian naysayers often cite the "selfish" Ayn Rand as a model of libertarian thought. This is silly, of course, as Rand was not a libertarian, never claimed to be a libertarian, and conversely, the libertarian movement doesn’t claim Rand as one of their own. In fact, Rand’s torchbearers at the Ayn Rand Institute rabidly oppose the libertarian movement proper, calling it “nihilistic” and “an enemy of capitalism and freedom”, and ARI vows to “never sanction, cooperate with, or collaborate with” the libertarian movement. [ARI FAQ] (Sniff.) So while it is true that many libertarians (including myself) have come to libertarianism through Rand and have a great deal of respect for her work on laissez-faire capitalism, Objectivism (Rand's philosophy) and libertarianism are very separate movements.
But the naysayers are perhaps more misled by our adherence to individual rights and our desire to eliminate the welfare state. “They’re only about the ‘individual’,” they say. “They want to abolish welfare, social security, Obamacare, and everything social! Why do they hate people?” But this is a conflation of government programs and the concept of social cooperation. Libertarianism is in no way opposed to social cooperation; it’s opposed only to force, fraud, and theft, which is what all government programs are based on. Yes, giving tax money to the poor sounds noble, but robbing Peter to pay Paul is still robbery. These programs don’t take the moral high ground, they simply substitute one ill for another, and libertarianism rejects the notion that the ends justify the means.
John Donne wrote in 1624, “No man is an island. No one is self-sufficient, everyone relies on others.” This is true for both our economic and mental well being, and libertarianism both recognizes and embraces this social nature of humanity. This is obvious in our view of free-market economics, but it’s no less true in our view of helping those in need. Yes, we do believe that the individual is responsible for himself, but we also recognize that life is cruel and messy and that individuals are stupendously flawed. We sometimes need help, and libertarians want there to be help. Our only objection is to the means. Instead of helping people with government programs that are funded by the implied threat of force (see what happens when you refuse to pay your taxes!), we want people helped by individuals and institutions voluntarily, and by insurance and other services available on the free market, beit for health, employment, or anything else.
One might ask, Are private solutions effective? But that question wrongly assumes that government solutions are effective, which Charles Murray disproved in his 1983 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. Murray used 30 years of data to demonstrate that in order for government programs to actually help anybody, their rules must be so broad and inclusive that their net effect is to exacerbate the very problems these programs are created to address. The deleterious effects of the welfare state were so obvious and well documented in that era that even the Left couldn’t ignore it, which is why Bill Clinton in 1996 signed into law significant welfare reform legislation.
And as if the ineffectiveness of the welfare state wasn’t bad enough, it brings social disharmony because the Peters tend to resent the Pauls when they can’t opt-out of the system, and have no control over how much of their money is being taken, to whom it’s being given, and under what circumstances.
In stark contrast to disharmony of the coercive welfare state, the voluntary nature of libertarian solutions encourages social cohesion and harmony. Peters and Pauls are not pitted against one another politically, and it lessens the “free-rider problem” because those in need receive support, not from faceless strangers, but from family, friends, communities, and institutions of limited means who are vested in the aid and can withdraw support if they feel the circumstances warrant it.
So while libertarianism is technically a form of individualism, it encourages and celebrates social and economic harmonies, both in the market and in the community.