Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain't So!

By Johnson, Charles | Freeman, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain't So!


Johnson, Charles, Freeman


Individualists get a bad rap in politics these days.

That should come as no surprise; politics these days is dominated by electoral politics, and electoral politics is an essentially anti-individualistic enterprise. With free markets and other forms of voluntary association, people who can't agree on what's worthwhile can go their own ways. But the point of government elections is to give people in the political majority a means for forcing through their favorite laws, projects, and rulers over the objections of people in the political minority, and making everybody obey those laws, fund or participate in those projects, and acknowledge those rulers.

Still, even if it is unrealistic to expect individualism to get much respect from people who are deeply invested in electoral politics, it's not too much to ask them not to try to score political points by totally distorting our position. In any case, if they do, it's worth taking the time to set things straight.

For example, consider "The Social Animal" by neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (September 12). He begins by quoting Barry G old water s argument (from The Conscience of a Conservative) that "Every man for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being. . . . Conservatism's first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?"

Outmoded Notions?

Brooks says that Goldwater's ideas seem to come from a vision of human life based on solitary, rugged individuals-"the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe." Brooks protests that "a tide of research" in the human and social sciences has demonstrated that Goldwater's oldfashioned individualist notions aren't supported by the latest empirical evidence because, Brooks tells us, human beings are social creatures by nature, closely intertwined with each other in the fabric of a shared social life.

He then lays into a number of Republican policies that he considers too locked into the old Goldwater free-market framework-tax cuts, tax-funded education vouchers, and "federally funded individual choice" in health care. He suggests that individualistic free-market principles have kept modern conservatives from coming up with a convincing rationale for the federal government's gigantic tax-funded bailouts for major investment firms and mortgage capitalists. (Apparently the failure to provide a convincing rationale for government bailouts of big business is supposed to be a problem for individualism, not a problem for the bailouts.) And he concludes that Goldwater's legacy of unrealistic free-market individualism is now "the main impediment to Republican modernization," which he believes has hobbled his fellow Republicans' efforts to provide plausible responses to "the gravest current concerns," which all trace back to the fact that "people lack a secure environment in which they can lead their lives."

Maybe Brooks is right that Goldwater's legacy is holding Republicans back politically. Individualistic ideas can be a tough sell, particularly since the obsessive focus on electoral politics as a panacea for every social ill ensures that genuinely individualistic ideas are almost never presented in the media or discussed in public forums. But whether he's right or wrong about the best way for Republicans to "fully modernize," I don't care much about the Republican Party or its political prospects, or about Barry Goldwater's reputation. I do care about the prospects for individualism and truly freed markets. And Brooks's case against them commits a series of serious and misleading errors.

Brooks ultimately condemns free-market policies because they smack of individualism, and he condemns individualism because human beings are demonstrably social animals, who live interdependent lives and gain both utility and meaning through social networks, community, and shared projects. …

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Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain't So!
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