If there’s one thing I’ve learned from arguing with progressives, it’s that most seem to misunderstand individualism. To promote it, they’ll say, is to support selfishness, greed, and limitless license—a me-centered world where it’s every man for himself and survival of the fittest.
In a recent video for Learn Liberty, Dr. Aeon Skoble cuts through such confusion, explaining how a proper focus on individualism is crucial for achieving community:
As Skoble explains, there is a modern tendency to believe that our identities are determined by the collective. Similar to Marx’s views on class and Mussolini’s views on race, modern-day intellectuals see human individuals as mindless zombies, willing to follow their given communities off a cliff. It’s not abou tinfluence; it’s about control.
As Skoble says:
“Communitarianism seems to elide the distinction between influencing and determining. We still make choices about our values and actions, despite their being many influences on our thinking.”
In other words, although our communities may indeed impact our ideas about labor, capital, society, and ourselves, we are not consigned to one isolated group. Indeed, we are not consigned at all. Our social relationships are important, but they do not render us powerless. Our individual outlook and actions should be invigorated by such interactions, not enslaved.
We have a choice, and if we didn’t, Skoble argues, we probably wouldn’t have so many communities:
“One thing society has to offer is that we’re all a little different. The great diversity of human interests, talents, and preferences is a testimony to our individualism, and society just is the manifestation of these differences as they’re brought together. If everyone thought the same way and liked all the same things, society would be a much less interesting place.”
But although this picture might be appealing to some, it represents the ultimate problem for many. In the deterministic world of community-programmed robots, such diversity is to be feared, not admired. After all, who will ever take control from the grandmaster’s chair? Who will rise to conduct us in an inspiring chorus of kumbaya? If different individuals are joining different groups and accomplishing different things, isn’t that just as bad as if we were sitting idly by ourselves? When will someone lay the smack down and establish some “unity” once and for all?
Through such a mindset, “atomic individualism” becomes no different from real individualism—the kind that actually recognizes the value of community. If we are uninterested in the federal bureaucrat monster, we must therefore prefer subservience to a creature more sinister. We can’t possibly care about ourselves while also contributing to the lives of others, and thus our core life relationships must either be against our will (determined) or purely selfish.
Give us an inch, they’ll say, and we will lock ourselves up for days, relishing our isolation and avoiding interaction at all costs. Forget that we have churches and festivals and clubs and schools and orchestras and neighborhood barbeques. Forget that free trade is free exchange and that productivity corresponds with collaboration. Forget that we are social animals who are actually, um, social.
And therein lies the big fat irony of the communitarian shtick: It attempts to elevate our sociability by pretending it doesn’t exist, with all such criticisms of “anti-social society” being immediately paired by proposals for anti-social society. In the world that rejects the individual, any corresponding relationships and communities are immediately tossed out the window, leaving us doomed to follow the checklist of the “enlightened,” marching aimlessly toward Pelosi knows where.
The truth, then, is that real individualism results in atomic communities, not isolated hermitdom, and this is what the control freaks are worried about.
For the admirers of utopian scheming, the big impressive tower will never be constructed if the project is left to free individuals pursuing their petty mutual ends. Heaven on earth will never be achieved if left to a scattered landscape of diverse, uncontrolled communities, organically collaborating to make the world a better place (“yeah right!”). The Big Sky God of Material Equality will never be properly worshipped if we refuse to lay our children on the altar of urgency.
More recently, this view has displayed itself in support of J im Wallis’s Circle of Protection, leading politicians, pressure groups, and religious leaders to toss about “shared sacrifice” as an excuse to dictate and determine the actions of others. For these know-it-all prophets of goodwill, “sharing” and “sacrifice” are inherently linked to a deterministic view of human potential—the kind that only leads to a one-dimensional “community” machine. For them, helping the poor is not about responding to an individual calling or a heartfelt inward witness. It’s about syncing our motherboards to the Mother Brain and beep–beeping our way to a “just” society. We mustn’t start partnering in our actual missions, because the only legitimate vision is that of the anointed.
Under such a faulty communitarian framework, helping the “least of these” translates into winning political battles and forcing one’s neighbors to accept a proper collective outcome—that single, virtuous village in which everybody sets their clocks according to the dictate of Compassion Gurus like Jim Wallis. The singular always beats the plural, because diversity is not a risk worth taking.
As Skoble concludes, accepting such a premise is most simply “getting it backwards.” Authentic community cannot exist without leveraging our unique social spirits, each of which is yearning to connect with the other.
People matter, so let’s stop pretending we’re pre-programmed robots and start connecting our spirits to the source that will set us free.