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A political system is the expression of a code of ethics. Just as some form of statism or collectivism is the expression of the ethics of altruism, so individualism — as represented by laissez-faire capitalism — is the expression of the ethics of rational self-interest.
In this chapter I propose to show why this is so, why such a social system follows logically from the preceding discussion, and what such a social system is and means.
Individualism is at once an ethical-psychological concept and an ethical-political one. As an ethical-psychological concept, individualism holds that a human being should think and judge independently, respecting nothing more than the sovereignty of his or her mind; thus, it is intimately connected with the concept of autonomy. As an ethical-political concept, individualism upholds the supremacy of individual rights, the principle that a human being is an end in him- or herself, and that the proper goal of life is self-realization.
There are many persons who might describe themselves as subscribing to a philosophy of individualism in the abstract as formulated thus far. But let us think through concretely and specifically, what this means in social-political terms — because, especially among psychologists, there seem to be a great many persons who profess individualism while in their consulting rooms, working with therapy clients, but who become supporters of statism or collectivism when their focus shifts to the political arena.
The essence of the social system entailed by the ethics I have been developing is contained in a single principle: No person or group of persons may seek to gain values from others by the use of physical force — in other words, the principle of voluntarism.
When human beings enter into social relationships, when they choose to deal with one another, they face a fundamental alternative: to deal by means of reason, or to deal by means of force. This alternative is inescapable: either a person seeks to gain values from others by their voluntary consent, by persuasion, by appealing to their mind, or a person seeks to gain values without the voluntary consent of the owner, which means by coercion or fraud. This, I submit, is the issue at the base of all social relationships and all political systems.
It is also the single most avoided issue in discussions of social philosophy.
I shall be blunt here, because there is a tendency in this arena to dance around the obvious, to discuss everything but the self-evident. It is at the mind that every gun is aimed. Every use of force is the attempt to compel a person to act against his or her judgment; if the person were willing to take the action, force would not be required.
In a free society, force may be used only as retaliation and only against the person or persons who initiate its use; a distinction is made between murder and self-defense. The person who resorts to the initiation of force seeks to gain a value by so doing; the person who retaliates in self-protection seeks not to gain a value, but to keep a value that is already rightfully possessed.
The policy of seeking values from human beings by means of force, when practiced by an individual, is called crime. When practiced by a government, it is called statism — or totalitarianism or collectivism or communism or socialism or nazism or fascism or the welfare state.
Force, governmental coercion, is the instrument by which the ethics of altruism — the belief that the individual exists to serve others — is translated into political reality.
Although this issue has not been traditionally discussed in the terms in which I am discussing it here, the moral-political concept that forbids the initiation of force, and stands as the guardian and protector of the individual’s life, freedom, and property, is the concept of rights. If life on earth is the standard, an individual has a right to live and pursue values as survival requires; a right to think and act on his or her judgment — the right of liberty; a right to work for the achievement of his or her values and to keep the results — the right of property; a right to live for his or her sake, to choose and work for personal goals — the right to the pursuit of happiness.
Without property rights, no other rights are possible. We must be free to use that which we have produced, or we do not possess the right of liberty. We must be free to make the products of our work serve our chosen goals, or we do not possess the right to the pursuit of happiness. And — since we are not ghosts who exist in some nonmaterial manner — we must be free to keep and consume the products of our work or we do not possess the right of life. In a society where human beings are not free to own privately the material means of production, their position is that of slaves whose lives are at the absolute mercy of their rulers. It is relevant here to remember the statement of Trotsky: “Who does not obey shall not eat.”
In a political-economic context, freedom means one thing and one thing only: freedom from physical compulsion. There is nothing that can deprive us of our freedom except other persons — and no means by which they can do it except through the use of force. It is only by the initiation of force (or fraud which is an indirect form of force) that our rights can be violated.
Voluntarism as a moral principle means libertarianism as a political principle. The only proper and justifiable purpose of government is to protect individual rights — to protect us from physical violence. It is the fact that our rights can be violated by others that necessitates the institution of government. If we are consistent in our adherence to individualism, we can see that the sole function of a government is to protect us from criminals, to protect us from foreign invaders, to provide a system of courts for the protection of property and contracts against breach or fraud — and otherwise to leave us alone.
In a society where our rights are protected by objective law, where the government has no other function or power, we are free to choose the work we desire to do, to trade our effort for the effort of others, to offer ideas, products, and services on a market from which force and fraud are barred, and to rise as high as our ability will take us. Among persons who do not seek the unearned, who do not long for contradictions or wish facts out of existence, who do not regard sacrifice and destruction as a valid means to gain their ends, there is no conflict of interest. Such persons deal with one another by voluntary consent to mutual benefit. They do not reach for a gun — or a legislator — to procure for them that which they cannot obtain through voluntary exchange.
This is not the place for a treatise on political economy. I will simply say that, today, the difficulty in discussing this issue lies in the fact that most people have all but lost the knowledge of what capitalism is, how it functions, and what it has achieved. The truth about its nature and history has been drowned in a wave of misrepresentations, distortions, falsifications, and almost universal ignorance. Only within the past few decades has there been the beginning of a serious movement among historians to expose and correct the gross factual errors in the literature purporting to describe nineteenth-century capitalism. Almost everyone today takes it as axiomatic that capitalism results in the vicious exploitation of the poor; that it leads to monopoly; that it necessitates periodic economic depressions; that it starts wars; that it resisted and opposed the worker’s rising standard of living; that that standard of living was the achievement, not of capitalism, but of labor unions and of humanitarian labor legislation. Not one of these claims is true, but they are among the most common bromides of our culture. People do not feel obliged to question such bromides, since they “know” in moral principle that capitalism must result in evils: capitalism is based on the profit motive and appeals to the individual’s self-interest; that alone is sufficient to damn it.
It is a widely held belief, inherited from Marx, that government is necessarily an agent of economic interest and that political systems are to be defined in terms of whose economic interests a government serves. Thus, capitalism is commonly regarded as a system in which the government acts predominantly to serve the interests of businesspeople; socialism, as a system in which the government serves the interests of the working class. It is this concept of government that the libertarian principle rejects.
The fundamental issue is not what kind of economic controls a government enforces, nor on whose behalf, the issue is whether one is to have a controlled economy or an uncontrolled economy. Laissez-faire capitalism is not government control of economics for the benefit of businesspersons; it is the complete separation of state and economics. This is implicit in the nature of capitalism, but historically it was not identified in such terms nor adhered to consistently.
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This is Part I of an edited version of Chapter 14 in Dr. Branden’s book “Honoring the Self: The Psychology of Confidence and Respect”. Copyright 1983 by Nathaniel Branden. Reprinted by permission of the author.