Wendy McElroy has an unusual article on her, "individualist feminism and individualist anarchism," site entitled "What if advocating libertarian is a mistake?
Her opening paragraph explains what she considers the issue:
"A question I was asked years ago has been turning in my mind ever since: what if the success of libertarianism led to a society in which you did not wish to live? What if enough people chose to live according to rules you so deeply deplore that society lost many or most of its benefits for you? The benefits to which I refer are the values of Western culture that I prize, including a focus on individuality and reason, diversity and progress. If freedom destroyed the things I valued most about my culture, would I look back upon the advocacy of libertarianism as a mistake?"
Society and Culture
The concept "culture" has only been around since the eighteenth century, and today is used to refer to either human development and improvement (a "cultured" individual), or in reference to the language, customs, literature, arts, and economy of a society (American Indian culture). The expression, "Western Culture," usually refers to the post industrial revolution societies of Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Wendy specifically associates the attributes of "individuality, reason, diversity, and progress" with Western culture as prized values, though I'm sure there is much more that she values about Western culture. What does seem odd, however, is the implication that freedom itself is not one of those values. The view expressed is, freedom, which she equates with libertarianism, is good, but if the other things one values in a society would be lost because of freedom, perhaps freedom ought not to be advocated.
Wendy clearly labels this piece, "a speculative essay," but, whether intended or not, the speculation is based on a "utilitarian" view of freedom, which implies, the virtue of freedom is the kind of society and culture it produces.
To be fair, in the end, she does partially repudiate that utilitarian view: "Libertarianism is not a blueprint for a predetermined society; it is a set of behavioral rules that allow for the greatest freedom and prosperity possible in whatever society evolves." Still it is "society" that is the ultimate reason for freedom in Wendy's view.
This utilitarian, or "social" view will be found, whether implicit or explicit, in every political view and theory, from totalitarianism to anarchism and virtually all ignore the only thing that truly determines the nature of societies and cultures.
I am not going to address Wendy McElroy's dilemma directly, because I think individual liberty is the ultimate principle governing the relationship between people in any social context, and if freedom results in a society or culture one does not like, perhaps it is one's own tastes and values that are the problem. For the fully rational objective individual nothing is of more value than their own individual liberty.
What I want to address is the idea that society itself is, or ought to be, the objective of any political theory or principle. That idea is the result of a complete misunderstanding of the nature of societies themselves, a misunderstand that even Ayn Rand was deceived by. It is Rand's view I will discuss, but the application to Wendy's dilemma ought to be obvious as well.
Ayn Rand, Man, and Society
The basis of Rand's political views was the belief that individual freedom is a basic requirement of human nature.
"Since man's mind is his basic tool of survival, his means of gaining knowledge to guide his actions——the basic condition he requires is the freedom to think and to act according to his rational judgment." That freedom, "... can be violated only by the use of physical force. ... The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships ....
"If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task .... This is the task of a government—of a proper government—its basic task, its only moral justification and the reason why men do need a government." [Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal, "The Nature of Government"]
It is quite obvious individual freedom is the basis of Rand's views, but notice the purpose of barring physical force, the only means by which individual freedom can be violated, is for the sake of "a civilized society." But she is more explicit about it than that.
"Men can derive enormous benefits from dealing with one another. A social environment is most conducive to their successful survival—but only on certain conditions...
"The two great values to be gained from social existence are: knowledge and trade. Man is the only species that can transmit and expand his store of knowledge from generation to generation; the knowledge potentially available to man is greater than any one man could begin to acquire in his own lifespan; every man gains an incalculable benefit from the knowledge discovered by others. The second great benefit is the division of labor: it enables a man to devote his effort to a particular field of work and to trade with others who specialize in other fields. This form of cooperation allows all men who take part in it to achieve a greater knowledge, skill and productive return on their effort than they could achieve if each had to produce everything he needs, on a desert island or on a self-sustaining farm.
"But these very benefits indicate, delimit and define what kind of men can be of value to one another and in what kind of society: only rational, productive, independent men in a rational, productive, free society." [Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal, "The Nature of Government"] [Emphasis mine.]
I believe there are many more advantages of a society to rational, productive, independent men than those Rand alluded to and agree that it is only rational, productive, independent men that can be a benefit to each other. But there is an implied assumption here, about these three ideas: "what kind of men," "what kind of society," and "why men need a government."
The Truly Moral Man
The only truly moral man is the independent individualist.Though never stated in exactly these words, this is certainly Rand's view:
"Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself ... There is no substitute for personal dignity. There is no standard of personal dignity except independence." [For the New Intellectual,—The Fountainhead, "The Soul Of An Individualist"]
"... of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character—that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself." [Atlas Shrugged Part Three / Chapter VII "This Is John Galt Speaking."]
Rand correctly observes that, "only rational, productive, independent men," can be of value to each other, but then adds, "in a rational, productive, free society;" but what other kind of society would be possible if it is composed entirely of rational, productive, independent men?"
Rational, productive, independent men are independent individualists, the only truly moral individuals, and a society of independent individualist is a moral society. Whether such a society is possible or not, it is necessary to understand the nature of such a society to understand the false assumptions underlying all political views and discussion.
The Moral Society
Only a society composed entirely of independent individualists is a moral society. An independent individualist is a self-sufficient, self-confident individual, fully responsible for his own choices and actions, seeking and desiring nothing but what he can earn or acquire through his own effort. His relationship with others is in mutual appreciation of what he and others share to their mutual benefit and enjoyment.
Rand recognized that citizens of such a society are not all geniuses, not all Hank Reardons or John Galts. As she said, "Degrees of ability vary, but the basic principle remains the same: the degree of a man's independence, initiative and personal love for his work determines his talent as a worker and his worth as a man." [For the New Intellectual,—The Fountainhead, "The Soul Of An Individualist"]
No man needs to be a Howard Roark to be an independent individualist. "I'll say that any man who has an innate sense of independence and self-respect, and a spark of the creative mind, has that much of Roark in him. Any man can follow Roark's principles—if he has intelligence, integrity and courage. He may not have Roark's genius, but he can function in the same manner and live by the same morality—within the limits of his own ability. He must live by the same morality—the morality of individualism—if he wants to survive at all." [The Letters of Ayn Rand, We The Living to The Fountainhead (1931-1943), November 30, 1945]
And she correctly points out that self-respecting men of independence are living moral lives, "the morality of individualism."
In such a moral society the idea of the initiation of force never comes up, because no one desires, much less seeks the unearned or undeserved. No one in such a society has any desire to control others, nor a reason to fear the freedom of others. It is only in such a society that men benefit from the society of others, because rational independent productive individuals only deal with one another by means of reason, respect of value of others and their lives is.
Even such things as racism and irrational prejudices are unknown, because the independent individualist only deal with others as individuals, not as members of some group or class. To the extent that a society is a moral one, a spirit of benevolence and mutual respect prevails.
What Is Assumed
What Ayn Rand assumes, and all others assume who wrestle with question of what an appropriate political system is, from totalitarianism to anarchism, is that no society, left to its own devices, is a moral one, and that some system or method must be put in place to make it a moral one. Rand assumes, as does everyone else, that no society is composed entirely of "rational, productive, independent men," but of the kind of men all the societies we know are composed of, the irrational, the unproductive, and the dependent. The assumption is no doubt correct.
Societies are composed mostly of people who believe they have a right to more than they can produce or acquire by their own effort, people, who, for one reason or another, desire to control others to make them behave in ways they would like, and believe the use of force is sometimes justified in dealing with other men. A society composed of such people is not a rational one—the use of force cancels reason. Such a society is not a productive one; those seeking the unearned consume without producing. Such a society is not a free society; it is an oppressive society ruled by those desiring to control others. It is an immoral society.
But, according to Rand, only a moral society, a "rational, productive, free," society is suitable for moral men. According to Rand, this is "why men need a government."
Ayn Rand—Social Engineer
I'm sure those who know anything about Ayn Rand's views will be shocked by the suggestion in the heading of this section that those views could in any way be characterized as social engineering. Nevertheless that is exactly what they are.
Men need a government as the means of securing a civilized society, by which she means a moral one, one in which the use of force is barred.
Since there could be no such need in a society that was composed entirely of moral men, that is, independent individualists, who only deal with other men by means of reason, persuasion, and by offering value for value, the whole purpose of government is to turn an immoral society into a moral one. Rand believed that, somehow, some political system can be devised that will turn immoral societies into moral ones. [Her term for that system is, "Capitalism."]
Every political system is an attempt make a society the kind one would like it to be, an attempt to engineer society, to impose some kind of system, some method, to make people behave in a certain way—a way they would not otherwise freely choose to behave. Obviously, if people would freely choose to always refrain from initiating the use of force against others, no system would be required to make them do what they would freely choose to do anyway.
A political system, by any name and espoused on any principle, even the principle of total individual liberty, is a system of oppression, a system of imposed physical force, and it can never work. The moral, the independent individualists, are never a threat to anyone else's liberty, it those who are such a threat that government's are meant to control, but it is those very kinds of people, the immoral, the dependent and irrational that will perpetually seek ways around government control, until, in they end, they are the government and are the ones in control.
What makes a society the kind of society it is are the kind of people that society is composed of, not its government or political system. Ultimately it is the kind of people that make up a society that determines the kind government that society will have.
The Independent Individualist In an Immoral Society
It has always surprised me that libertarians, even those who seem to understand that no government system can be a moral one, still view everything from a "social" perspective, in terms of society. The individualist above all others understands the value of the society of others, and what a great advantage a society can be. The difference in the individualist's view of society and all others is that the individualist does not need a society, because the individualist is, above all other things, self-sufficient, that is, independent.
"I think the only cardinal evil on earth is that of placing your prime concern within other men. I've always demanded a certain quality in the people I liked. I've always recognized it at once--and it's the only quality I respect in men. I chose my friends by that. Now I know what it is. A self-sufficient ego. Nothing else matters." [Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, Part Four—11]
It is because the individualist does not need society that no society can control him. It cannot manipulate the individualist, because no society, and no other individual, has anything to offer he cannot live successfully without. All that the individualist finds of value in a society is a bonus, never anything he thinks he has a right to expect or enjoy, but he, perhaps, is the only kind of individual who can truly enjoy the advantages of society, or deserves them.
The individualist does not require or seek anyone else's approval or agreement, but appreciates such approval and agreement as he finds in others, when they are both sincere. The individualist does not require the company of others, but enjoys the company of such individuals with whom he share's ideas and values and with whom he can enjoy a rational mutually beneficial relationship.
In any society, it is only the independent individualist who truly deserves the benefits of society, and members of such a society with anything to offer. All others are at some level parasites, always taking from society more than they contribute.
It is true, that a society offers to all individuals the opportunity to have more than they could have if all they had depended entirely on their own effort and ability. In a society, the real advantages are: 1. specialization of effort and trade, 2. the ability to gain knowledge by learning from others, 3. a vastly increased variety of goods and services (diversity, perhaps), 4. an almost unlimited resource of varied ideas, that are both enriching intellectually interesting, 5. the opportunity to find others that are both socially and intellectually enjoyable, and perhaps most of all, 6. the increased opportunity to find the love of one's life.
Only an independent individualist is a contributor to such a society by 1. producing something to trade with others who produce, 2. in whatever modest or exceptional way, advances knowledge from teaching others skill he has learned and developed to teaching mankind how to do something never done before (think Edison and Wright brothers), 3. contribute at least his own unique abilities and ideas, 4. however limited, his own style of living and being not copied from others, and 6. being the kind of self-made individual that another can love for their value as individuals.
What is the ideal society? The ideal society is a moral society, a society in which every individual in it, to the extent of their ability and nature seeks to be and achieves all they can to fulfill the requirements of their own nature, to enjoy their life to the fullest in achieving their own ideal, of being all they can be as a human being.
Whatever one believes would be ideal, in terms of one's circumstances in this world, there is no perfect ideal. There is no place that does not have some disadvantages, no perfect climate, no place without danger, no society that offers everything one would like. The real world is not an easy one, but it is manageable, but it takes work, learning, and effort. Almost anything an individual would like to have or accomplish is possible, but the more valuable and important it is, the more difficult it will be and the more it will cost. It is not yours for the taking, but it is yours for the making, if you are willing to make the effort and pay the price in terms of physical and mental work.
But if you want to eliminate all difficulty, if you want a world without risk or danger, if you want it all to be just as you'd wish, you want what is not possible. If you want to live successfully in this world, you must discover what the world is and what it demands of you in order to achieve your ambitions and ideals.
So the real world will always have those in it that would like to control you, especially if you are productive, for their own benefit. There will always be those who do not want to be responsible for their own lives, who desire and seek more than they deserve or earn by their own virtue and effort, who cannot be happy unless they are controlling others. They are in the world, but they do not need to be part of your society.
There will always be the stupid, the ignorant, and the intentionally anti-intellectual. There will always be those who see self-discipline as self-sacrifice; those who never discover freedom means being entirely in control of one's own life, by means of rational objective choice; those who mistake yielding to every whim and desire, or only some whims and desires, for individual liberty; those who never learn the difference between subjective hedonism and individualist independence.
There will always be those whose "values" and "integrity" are utilitarian and pragmatic, honest because it pays, but who will throw over honesty in a second if something else pays more.
The Individualist Political Strategy
The true independent individualist is not a political activist, in fact, is not a social activist of any kind. Society, in the usual sense, means nothing to the independent individualist personally. He does have in interest in what any particular society is doing at any particular time in order to evade their more destructive policies and actions, just as he is interested in the weather and geology (because it is practical to avoid where tornadoes are occurring or being where volcanoes are erupting). He has no more interest in attempting to control or change a society, than he does in controlling volcanoes or changing the weather.
All of politics is based on the belief that there is some method or system by which societies can be engineered, which ultimately means, that people can be controlled or manipulated to be what someone believes they ought to be, either by direct coercive force, the threat of such force, or by changing people's minds by means of persuasion, education, or propaganda. The independent individualist regards any attempt to manipulate societies, or the individuals within a society, as immoral.
"Manipulate," is not the same as "influence," and the independent individualist has no objection to the use of influence, such as advertising by which one attempts to influence others to buy their product or use their services. The only kind of influence that is moral, however, is the appeal to other's reason. Most, so-called, "influence," is usually an appeal to people's feelings, sentiments, or fears, not their objective reason.
In another context, Ayn Rand wrote:
"Individualists have always been reluctant to form any sort of organization. The best, the most independent, the hardest working, the most productive members of society have always lived and worked alone. But the incompetent and the unscrupulous have organized." [Emphasis mine.] [The Letters of Ayn Rand, July 20, 1941, to Channing Pollock.]
This is, perhaps, one of the most brilliant, though seemingly obvious, of all Rand's observations. All political and social activism is by its very nature, "organized." The independent individualist is too busy being a creative productive individual to waste his abilities, time, and effort on the organized efforts of others. Organized efforts are for, "the incompetent and the unscrupulous." The independent individualist, the truly moral man, wants no part of them.