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The Individual and the Family

In a recent CNN debate between contenders for the GOP nomination, Rick Santorum initiated a brief spar with Ron Paul over the notion of individualism. Ron Paul began with the following:
“This country has always put people in groups … We need to see everybody as an individual. And to me, seeing everybody as an individual means their liberties are protected as individuals and they’re treated that way and they’re never penalized that way.”
Santorum, in his typical angry-schoolboy fashion, took the opportunity to inject the family into what was otherwise a statement about the importance of individual rights. As Santorum retorted:
“I disagree in some respects with Congressman Paul, who says the country is founded on the individual. The basic building block of a society is not an individual. It’s the family. That’s the basic unit of society.”
This struck me as a bizarre occasion to attack Ron Paul, who certainly wouldn’t disagree that the family is a “basic building block of society,” and whose stance on individual rights is essential if such building blocks are to fall into their proper place. (Can building blocks “flourish”?) Yet Santorum is also pulling in the right direction, and as unfocused and ill-timed as his routine insertions of “family!” may be, we would do well to look beyond his ineffective Russian-roulette style and give the family its proper placement. In a recent post at The Heritage Foundation, Ryan Messmore provides such clarity, arguing that “to leave the impression that rights-bearing individuals are islands unto themselves would be a mistake:”
Everyone exists in some form of relationship to others. In fact, we become who we are—we develop our own unique habits and views—in the context of these relationships. We need to think of ourselves and others not merely as self-standing individuals but as persons in community. And the most basic form of community is the family. Families and other community institutions are essential to human well-being. It’s in these local forms of association that we learn not only to respect rights but also to exercise responsibilities to others. If we seek to restore limited government, it’s important not to overlook the fact that much of our flourishing lies in the kinds of relationships fostered in civil society. The more people feel that they can trust and rely upon each other, the less they will need to turn to government for care—or to remedy injustice. These interpersonal bonds can be weakened, though, when we overlook the significance of social relationships to individual thriving.
Whether or not Paul was leaving such an impression will depend on the listener, but Santorum obviously didn’t get the memo. As Messmore seems to understand, this is indicative of a larger misunderstanding in the public at large. Far too often, proponents of individual rights assume that everyone else will connect the dots between the individual and community. Indeed, some of our very own fail with pride. But in doing so, or rather, in not doing so, we risk leaving the impression that the lines do not exist in the first place. We may think it’s obvious that the family and other essential private institutions are natural byproducts of individual liberty, but the connection is far more misunderstood than we realize. Such a misunderstanding becomes increasingly difficult to overcome when the majority of progressive politicians and pundits consistently talk about the “community” in big bold letters (quotes intended). Their underlying notion is most certainly false (as I have argued elsewhere), so what’s keeping us from exposing their flawed reasoning head on? I’m all about demonstrating the essentiality of individual rights, but rambling on about John Locke and friends will do nothing for the public at large if we fail to emphasize the role of such rights in achieving true community. As Messmore concludes:
If we focus too narrowly on people’s individual autonomy, we’re less likely to foster a sense of responsibility for one another through family, church, and community, leaving individuals more likely to turn to the state to meet their needs. As a result, the social role of local, civil society institutions is more likely to give way to a federal government seeking to enlarge its influence. The expanding state and the stand-alone individual go hand in hand.
By failing to give the community its proper focus in discussions of individualism—an error that both Paul and Santorum have committed in different respects—we will indirectly give rise to an ever-increasing encroachment on the very communities we are so passively taking for granted. We must make a concerted effort to correctly affirm and emphasize the notion of authentic community and the inputs that achieve it. Otherwise, we will cede such definitions to the very same people who have perverted these institutions beyond recognition. Let’s nip this in the bud. And that includes you, Santorum.