On individualism

If you ask me about my political leanings, I’m likely to tell you that I’m a small-L libertarian. Or a philosophical minarchist. Small-L libertarianism — at it’s most basic, socially liberal and fiscally conservative — is the “new” big thing in American politics. One of the key characteristics of libertarians and of a lot of the conservatives who rail against social welfare programs is that they claim they favor individual responsibility and the rights of the individual. A lot of this argument goes back through Thomas Jefferson’s declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, to Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes’ views of the state of nature from which man arose.

The three philosophers envisioned variations on a world in which man was a solitary creature and that encounters with other humans were violent by necessity. It was only through overcoming this inherent violence that humans were able to establish societies and rules for governing human interactions. But, without question, this is choosing the chicken when asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. (Evolution tells us it was the egg, because there were plenty of species which laid eggs before there were birds, let alone chickens in particular.)

The fact is that humans are inherently social creatures. All other currently existing primates are social creatures and we have evidence that early hominids were as well. The earliest humans, those residing in a “state of nature”, were not solitary creatures. They had families, often extended ones. Based on the behaviors of the other extant primates, when those extended families got large enough, they would split apart because of the stress they put on the food supply and other resources. Over time, after each group split enough times, the separate families would be unknown to each other. And when two distantly related families encountered each other, the result would often be a conflict over resources. In this, the philosophers were undoubtedly right. Violence was inherent in the life of early man. But it wasn’t a violence of individual against individual,  it was a violence of tribe against tribe.

And this is the root of something which I’m becoming more aware of amongst the various folks who claim to support individual rights, and that they want to protect those rights against encroachment from the state. In proclaiming individual rights uber alles, people often ignore the fact that individual rights have always been suborned to some extent to the health and security of the tribe. In their everyday lives, however, people tacitly acknowledge this truth in their behavior, acting beneficially for not just themselves, but for their family and their friends, and often for a local community that they don’t necessarily have close biological ties too.

It is a rare thing for a person who is defending individual rights to actually be a true individualist and not a voluntarily contributing member of a community. It is this seeming contradiction that has always kind of tickled at the back of my mind whenever political discussions develop. The truth is that almost everyone is a socialist to the extent that they want their social unit — their tribe — to be equitable to its members, and to ensure their health and safety.

What gets me curious is why some people are more able than others to expand the population of their “tribe” to include an entire nation, or even the global population as a whole. I seem to recall reading about some research study which found a potential connection between the presence of certain genetic markers and this ability, but my memory may be lying to me.

On a personal level, I’m continually getting better at recognizing that my tribe is as much of the world’s population as wants to be part of a single tribe. On the national level, I tend to disapprove of the methodology of many of the policies we’ve enacted in an attempt to most effectively benefit the nation because I don’t believe that the majority of them are effective at all.

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