Is Libertarianism Individualistic?

Note: This is an old post of mine, long since deleted. I’m reposting it in response to this comment by Kyle Cupp.

Is Libertarianism individualistic? No doubt for many the answer to this question would seem to be “um, yeah, obviously.” But like most ‘isms’ the terms libertarianism and individualism can be used in several different senses. If by libertarianism one means something like “the views of Ayn Rand” and by individualism one means something like “the views of Ayn Rand” then the answer will be um, yeah, obviously. For purposes of this post, however, I’ll define libertarianism as the belief that government ought ideally to be limited to the core functions of the so-called “nightwatchman state,” e.g. policing, national defense, the courts, etc. As for individualism, I’ll just quote Wikipedia:

Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses independence and self-reliance. Individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires, while opposing most external interference upon one’s choices, whether by society, or any other group or institution.

Certainly there are many libertarians in the above sense who are also individualists. Be that as it may, there is, I think, no necessary connection between libertarianism and individualism so defined. Libertarianism, as I’ve defined it, is concerned only with placing limits on the state. It says nothing about the institutions of civil society, be it social norms, voluntary associations, the Church, or marriage and the family. Individualism, by contrast, does not draw a sharp distinction between limitations on individual freedom imposed by civil society and those imposed by the state. Nor is libertarianism a “moral stance” in the sense of the Wikipedia definition of individualism. Libertarianism offers a set of policy prescriptions which can be held on a variety of different grounds. One might subscribe to libertarianism because one is a committed individualist, or one might advocate it on purely practical grounds. It’s true that libertarians don’t tend to talk about civil society much (though there are exceptions). This may, in fact, partly explain its as yet limited appeal. But at the risk of repeating myself, allow me to repeat myself: there is nothing inherent in libertarianism that requires one to downplay civil society, or to view the limitations on individual action that it sometimes involves with suspicion.

Nor, it seems to me, is it the case that a libertarian society need be particularly individualistic, or for most of the populace to hold individualistic views. Singapore, for example, while hardly a libertarian paradise, comes a lot closer than most countries to enacting economic policies similar to the libertarian ideal. Yet it has done so not in the name of individualism, but in furtherance of a kind of Confucian based system of values which places a high degree of importance on community and family. Indeed, many of its more libertarian policies are billed precisely as a means of combating individualism.

Similarly, I suspect that the higher level of church attendance in the United States is one of the reasons the state is smaller here than it is in many European countries. Functions that in Europe would be carried out by the state are here carried out more so by the institutions of civil society, with the result that America is closer to the libertarian ideal than is much of Europe. One might almost say that far from being inherent in libertarianism, individualism of the sort described above is fatal to liberty, as a weaker civil society ultimately translates into a stronger state.

10 Responses to Is Libertarianism Individualistic?

  1. Joe Hargrave says:

    Excellent! I think you’re absolutely right on this one.

    Now let’s see where this goes…

  2. Linus says:

    Ayn Rand folks seem to be some of the most predictable, un-individualistic people I’ve encountered.

  3. jonathanjones02 says:

    Libertarianism, like liberalism and conservatism and socialism, must be very clearly defined before discussions about it can be undertaken. Second, there are varying definitions, many of them more than defensible. Third, the semantics get very tricky very fast (to take one example, conservatism is very different from but also closely related to the conservative movement).

    On this point, it is correct to note that libertarianism says little about the inherent institutions of civil society such as social norms. However, it would also be correct to state that many libertarians (maybe even a solid majority) are also individualists heavily influenced by people like Rand (who called herself a radical and hated both libertarians and conservatives, and hate was her own word). Therefore, generalizations like Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, where libertarianism is akin to the theories (myths, I would say) of individualism insofar as there is a political movement, are reasonable.

  4. Blackadder says:

    Ayn Rand folks seem to be some of the most predictable, un-individualistic people I’ve encountered.

    Indeed.

  5. byafi says:

    Your definition of libertarianism omits “absence of coercion,” which is fundamental to any notion of liberty. Government is normally the sole source of coercion, which is why libertarians frequently disagree on just how much government we should have.

    Individualism is usually contrasted with collectivism, so while it may mean many things to different people, its primary concern is with individuals making their own decisions.

    Rand was certainly an individualist, but she most emphatically rejected being called libertarian.

    Nothing in either definition is concerned with non-aggressive behavior or voluntary decisions, which is why “civil society” is not addressed. There are no “… limitations on individual freedom imposed by civil society …” except those voluntarily accepted.

  6. Ike says:

    Your suspicions about churches having something to do with less government intervention are correct; in fact, for most of the history of the US, the community services we often associate with government (the sustenance of the old, the care of the sick, the care of those suffering accidents, etc.) were performed by chruches, families, and now almost neutered fraternal organizations. As the government assumed more power, America became less reliant on the extended family, the church, and their friends; this inevitably lead to less activity with, and an undervaluing of these things.

  7. Elaine Krewer says:

    “As the government assumed more power, America became less reliant on the extended family, the church, and their friends.”

    Actually, I suspect it may have been the other way around — as Americans became less reliant on family (due to more frequent divorce, single parenthood, and mothers working outside the home) and on church (due to falling off of religious practice) and on their friends (due again to the rise in two-income families and people having to move more frequently for job reasons), they began looking to the government to fill the gaps.

    I suppose ultimately it’s a chicken-and-egg kind of question.

    As for Ayn Rand, whom I’ve discussed at length in past posts, I always note that most adherents of Objectivism seem to be young, single people with no responsibilities to anyone other than themselves. Her philosophy tends to wear thin once you get married, have children, get old or sick, or have a sick or disabled relative to care for.

    It should come as no surprise to anyone that Rand never had any children, and although she was married to the same man for over 50 years they had an “open” marriage where both carried on affairs with others.

  8. Joe Hargrave says:

    “Her philosophy tends to wear thin once you get married, have children, get old or sick, or have a sick or disabled relative to care for.”

    Just like sex, drugs, and rock and roll, or the class struggle against the capitalist oppressors.

  9. R.C. says:

    Hmm.

    In the U.S., “individualism” is championed, and often by political conservatives…but when it is championed, it is defined by these folks differently from the Wikipedia definition given above.

    I’m not sure what is the “true” definition of “individualism,” if there can be such a thing defined other than by usage — and if usage defines a word, then American usage is certainly permitted to differ from Continental (which I suspect is the origin of the Wikipedia definition).

    In any case, Americans and especially American conservatives and those libertarians who are Christian tend to define “individualism” as the antithesis of all that’s bad in collectivism…without thereby adopting the opposite errors.

    “Individualism” so defined is therefore the belief…

    1. That human beings are free willed beings with intrinsic dignity who are morally responsible to use their power of choice for good and not for evil — where “good” includes both self-directed good (as in working to buy a new car) and other-directed good (as in working to afford to make larger charitable donations) as equally legitimate exercises of individual moral responsibility;

    2. That both inalienable rights and moral guilt accrue to individuals and not to groups (save indirectly when it happens to accrue to all the individuals in a group);

    3. That to differentiate the treatment and legal protections afforded to persons on the basis of their membership in a group (especially involuntary membership; e.g. in a racial or gender group) denies them their human dignity as individuals who are free to differ from that group and not defined by it; and,

    4. That while exercising force against an individual to prevent him from violating someone’s rights through force or fraud is just, exercising force against him to compel him to an “above-and-beyond” moral behavior (e.g. almsgiving) is an unjustified use of force against his free will and thus represents a violation of his intrinsic human dignity.

    That’s “individualism” in American political usage, especially in works of political philosophy.

    It seems to me that American formulations of libertarianism are therefore “individualistic” according to American formulations of individualism.

    But American formulations of libertarianism are not “individualistic” according to Continental formulations of individualism.

    And this is no surprise, since most Continental usage of political terminology varies widely from American usage. (A European right-winger used to be a monarchist. Has American right-wing ever been monarchical?! And in Russia, “hard-line conservatives” are communists — or were until the last decade or so. Has American conservatism ever been communist?!)

    Anyhow, let’s be careful to tailor our usage of terms to local custom…or at least carefully define them before using!

  10. Foxfier says:

    If I read correctly… Libertarianism is a political philosophy, Individualism is a personal philosophy?

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