EDITORIAL: Individualism, Libertarianism, and Sharing the Burdens


Individual freedom has long been an ideal, but in the last half of the Twentieth Century it took on a new paradigm for many people of relatively average means. The individual was to define his or her own goals in life, even before making family commitments to other people. One knew who one was before one over-invested in naïve emotions regarding other peoples. One developed one’s education, interests and career first. Marriage and relationships were seen as a means for self-fulfillment, experienced for the private benefit of the marital or domestic partners. Love and power became their own justifications, and stemmed out of psychological surplus, expressive of polarity that did not have to comport with biological gender. On the other hand, a major moral imperative of individualism was non-aggression. One does not impose upon another’s will; in particular, one does not make one’s needs generate another person’s personal priorities. We call this concept personal autonomy, and it has played a major role in providing opportunities for previously disadvantaged people.


All of this was now possible because technology was freeing up time and energy from adaptive tasks. At the same time the world in the West, while it may have appeared seriously threatened at various times, remained stable with economic growth. Marriage and family and faithfulness to gender roles were no longer so necessary to get essential things done or to protect the homestead. A man no longer needed to validate himself by proving that he could “compete” for the benefit of wife and children and biological lineage; he could define his own aesthetic pursuits first and define his attachments to others through these aesthetics (similarly for women). So all of this was very helpful for women who wanted self-fulfillment outside of the home, just as it was also for homosexuals. Technology and a sophisticated and agile economy have partially replaced communal and familial interdependence with a hidden personal dependence upon technological and physical infrastructure, which, of course, can be attacked and undermined in asymmetric fashion by the displaced.


At the same time, the world became interconnected, globalized, and reconciled. Ideas and mechanisms that were at first thought to live mainly as private choices started to affect others through expressive culture and media, now accessible to average persons. Self-publication of original ideas became common first in desktop formats and then quickly through the World Wide Web, blogs, and other Internet mechanisms like peer-to-peer file-sharing that could make it economical to distribute home movies. Even from an individualist perspective, this development presented certain problems, such as a breakdown of understanding and respect for ownership of intellectual property: copyright infringement.


Still, a major change in personal perspective had taken hold. The individual could become his own universe (as reflected in the name of at least one cooperative publishing company today).  This evolution certainly came into conflict with older norms of socialization which gave people purpose through family, blood relations and community, and often religious faith. People (in this country, mostly from earlier generations) whose lives were circumscribed by the authority of family and gender roles resent the loss of public meaning given to a common family experience and the lack of loyalty to family and tradition (often religious) exhibited by their children. They feel that they are being demeaned and willfully left behind, as younger individuals find new cultural opportunities that their parents could not have imagined. Family honor and loyalty to blood kinship are retained as moral virtues that outweigh economic injustices among families or many obvious abuses, because family does or can, within its own sphere, raise children and take care of its own disabled, vulnerable and elderly, and give ongoing meaning to the endeavor.


Individualism offered an indirect tool in achieving social justice. No longer was inherited wealth or privilege as important as it had been before. An open, individualistic and global society should frown on discrimination because discrimination no longer made economic sense, whatever the legalities. The most skilled an able person could break through class and racial lines to an extent unknown before. Major corrections to previous inequities could be achieved without depending on the legal machinations of parsing disadvantaged people into suspect classes.  


Nevertheless, since the beginning of the new Millennium, it has never been so apparent how unequally the world’s burdens are shared. There are new threats to economic stability – terrorism (obvious since 9/11/2001), global warming, disasters, pandemics – that threaten to reverse all of the gains in individual liberty and even bring an end to orderly liberal civilization as we know it. A significant portion of the discomfort seems to be the indignation and resentment of those who have been left behind by the newer implementation of individual autonomy. There are new calls for shared individual sacrifice, although generally not from the current administration. Individual sharing of burden ought to be a prerequisite for government solutions to common problems.


While racism, tribalism and classism were thought to have been reduced, they still seem very apparent, even if they manifest in new ways and with new players. The whole controversy over radical Islam fits into this debate. And the fact that there are still swaths of neglected and exploited poor never was so apparent as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Individualism, moreover, complicates the picture by allowing enormous inequalities to exist within a social class or family. People who fail as individuals in a competitive world can be allowed to wither away and die, and this happens.  Medical technology can save and extend lives, but we debate how we can care for elderly when we bear fewer children who could care for them and when we look at individuals in terms of their immediate productiveness, not in terms of their past contributions within the family. Disadvantage is a much more specific matter and may occur in any family, with severe medical problems or disability. As conservatives point out, economic or social disadvantage or need may or may not involve the individual’s own substandard conduct or performance.


Religious faiths appeal to a spirit of communalism. This is particularly true of the New Testament, where Jesus obviously recognizes that there is social and economic inequality, which may have been seen largely as a matter of birth circumstances, and where helping others through both unquestioning generosity and perhaps socialization is a prerequisite to moral acceptability. Religion does not seem to comport with individualism they way it has been perceived. Faith seems to demand  incorporating others’ needs into one’s own goals.


It seems apparent that a fiat economy does not by itself describe the worthiness of persons.  Unlimited self-promotion, so much part of the 90s culture, is coming under suspicion. There is a new emphasis on giving and on proving that one can provide for others besides oneself. This expectation takes on both intra-family and outside-family aspects, as separate components. There is a particular sense that one’s achievements are not legitimate until one can prove that one is accountable to someone besides oneself. A couple of generations ago that notion automatically followed from the notions of family responsibility and attention to the whole process of marriage; loss of a particular man’s life was considered more noteworthy once he had a wife and kids to depend on him. One can try to compensate for lack of direct dependents with deliberate volunteering, but volunteer work (as I have seen with the Red Cross and Whitman Walker Clinic) is often ineffective without long term commitment of the heart and some sense of ‘change,” a desire to affiliate with people who are not, in usual individualistic terms, cultural “equals.” Self-promotion stems from cultural and past legal pressures that may cause one to focus so much on taking care of himself that he does not have resources left to take care of others. 


This of course, brings out the whole debate on marriage, particularly that it is an institution whose public meaning transcends the individual relationships it supports but provides a “psychological common elements” that these relationships need to remain exciting for a whole lifetime and therefore provide the next generation. The old idea of abstinence outside of marriage (and all of this gets tied up with Catholic theology, particularly in the way this theology seeks to burden homosexuals now) is really an important psychological nucleus. That is, the individual bonds his emotional body to others and carries out the necessary altruistic functions without too much self-consciousness; instead he sees the whole marriage paradigm as an ethical (and perhaps religious) justification for personal freedom. Of course, in earlier generations this lost credibility because “family” was used to justify keeping subservient (by assigned station in life) groups of people in their “place” (whether “Jews,” “Negroes,” etc.). With an individualistic society, there is a new opportunity to look at how the family and the ideas around marriage can generate a sense of solidarity and community to get people taken care of and give them meaning.


It will take a lot of soul-searching. Gay marriage is just one example of the debates that ensue.  Freedom cannot be taken for granted, and that is why political debates about service in the military (“don’t ask don’t tell”)  and the ability to have custody of children are so important.  A new level of citizenship will have to be expected of individual people if our freedoms are to continue. And it will require self-awareness that does put a lot of people on the spot. It will take some psychological decentralization.  There is a bit of a contradiction in our cultural challenge: Our educational (even allowing “No Child Left Behind”) and workplace culture (“The Apprentice”) stresses self-reliance, individual performance and competitiveness (and teamwork in a superficial way), whereas redeveloping religious and moral norms seem to demand a much deeper connection and answerability to others. Just like a bacterium with no nucleus, the incentives for charity will have to be spread around in the community and not just be predicated on the emotional ties around marriage and family as in the past. Even so, the heart of the cultural war seems to be about socialization: some people want do define their own lives and invent complex moral rationalizations to justify themselves, whereas others want simpler and reliable socialization (the family) and simple systems of belief (religious faith) without much challenge to give their lives “meaning.”


We come full circle back to the role of libertarianism in this kind of a world. Libertarianism supports the idea of using government as little as possible to achieve socially desirable and necessary ends. The reason for this is that any attempt to organize individual people to get them to “pay their dues” (calls for resuming the draft or mandatory national service provide an example for discussion) invites corruption – whether the organization is based on redistribution of wealth (the political Left) or on reinforcing the psychological foundation of the traditional family (the political Right). Someone gets to be in charge in any case and have the “powers.” (It is interesting that libertarians generally view marriage as a private contract that should have minimal involvement or privileged recognition from the state beyond enforcement of contracts—because non-married people would have to subsidize it. But libertarians also support informal enforcement of family values by voluntary actions, as with churches enforcing their own policies for members, or with mechanisms of inheritance, wills, and the “dead hand.”) So can laissez-faire still cut it? (Did it ever?) Can government be kept out of directly mediating the common moral commitments of people? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean that new attention to personal values won’t play out in the culture. Maybe there could be market mechanisms to see how well people do what they should do, such as citizenship scoring (analogous to credit scoring), as I have discussed in other editorials here. (The Mormon practice of mandatory missions for young men comes into mind as a semi-voluntary service.) One should realize that some kinds of jobs and opportunities will not make sense until one has bonded to others.


Individual freedom poses a certain paradox since it cannot be taken for granted. Freedom accepts that unaccounted inequities may exist but impose an eventual obligation to do something about them, personally, on everyone above the line, with a certain amount of dedication. That concept does seem to drive the Biblical concept of charity, at least in the New Testament. The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, steers this kind of thinking into a reverence for life and especially the transmission of life as a pivot point in guaranteeing that liberty will not become corrupted (even if some of the Church’s statements and doctrines seem to go to unreasonable lengths). Without that kind of giving and personal openness, a free society may itself become unstable and unsustainable. History and archeology provide some examples.


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Liberty essay

Freedom essay

“Pay your dues” essay

“Right to be listened to” essay

Proposed “Bill of Responsibilities” (the fourth is a bit Gospel or faith based)


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©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use.