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The Calling: Are Libertarians Individualists?

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A young libertarian recently told me that, as an individualist, he thinks it strange that people identify with a religious or ethnic group as “part of their roots or culture.” For this young man, individualism apparently means rejecting all sorts of possible (voluntary) connections to others that might suggest that group identity is equal to, or even more important than, individual identity.  This sort of individualism, which is found too frequently among libertarians, misunderstands the ways in which libertarianism is and is not “individualistic.”

There are three ways that the words “individualist” or “individualism” might be used to describe libertarians.  Two of them have some accuracy, but the third, which is the one raised above, does not.

One sense in which libertarians are individualists is this: When we analyze social phenomena, we assume that only individuals choose.  Therefore, understanding even highly social institutions like the market begins, although it does not end, with individual human action.  The theory of spontaneous order explains that many social institutions are the “products of human action but not human design.”  That is, they start with individual actions, but those actions produce outcomes that no individual or group of individuals intended.  Libertarians recognize that those actions create something greater than the sum of their parts.

A second sense in which libertarians are individualists is that we believe the individual is the meaningful political unit, because only individuals have rights and all individuals should be equal before the law.  Notice that this does not mean that all individuals have equal talents or abilities; it is rather a statement about the moral standing of individuals.  Individuals are the relevant moral unit, and they are equal in terms of their moral standing.

So only individuals choose and have political rights.  Neither aspect applies to groups.  When we say, “Walmart lowered prices,” we mean that individuals within that organization made decisions to lower prices.  The same is true when we say, “The government raised taxes.”  It is ultimately individuals who make those choices.  Even when we say an institution has a “legal right” to undertake a particular action, what we really mean is that the individuals who comprise it have the right to do so in the name of the institution.

The third sense of “individualist” is the fallacious one.  Analytical and political individualism does not mean we must subscribe to what we might call “atomistic individualism,” believing it is morally desirable for humans to deny the need to be connected to others through group identity. This belief too often leads some libertarians to be suspicious of other libertarians who do accept some group identity. I think this is both an error and a huge strategic mistake.

Why should you be suspected of opposing the first two senses of individualism simply because you are willing to recognize that you were born into a family that helped to define and constitute you, or a religious tradition that helped create the you that you have become, or a racial or ethnic group whose physical and social markers are part of you?  After all, don’t these same libertarians call themselves “libertarians,” and isn’t that just a way of saying they feel deeply connected to the “roots and culture” of classical liberalism?  Is it suspect to declare the need for that group identity?

Libertarianism does not, contrary to what a small number of libertarians seem to think, require you to reject your family, your culture, your religion, or any other voluntary association in the name of individualism and liberty.

Finally, libertarians, of all people, should recognize that the market constitutes humanity’s greatest means of cooperation and social interconnection.  It is about as far from atomistic individualism as something can be.

What Ludwig von Mises called the “Law of Association,” whereby specialization and exchange create broader social bonds, is one of the great strengths of the market. This is captured beautifully in the film version of “I, Pencil.”  We should be celebrating human cooperation and interdependence, because it is central to human progress and liberty.  If we lead people to believe that libertarianism requires the atomistic version of individualism, we not only undermine our own best arguments, we also make the free society seem like a lonely and hollow place.

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    Steven Horwitz is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA. He is the author of two books, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective (Routledge, 2000) and Monetary Evolution, Free Banking, and Economic Order (Westview, 1992), and he has written extensively on Austrian economics, Hayekian political economy, monetary theory and history, and the economics and social theory of gender and the family. His work has been published in professional journals such as History of Political Economy, Southern Economic Journal, and The Cambridge Journal of Economics. He has also done public policy research for the Mercatus Center, Heartland Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Cato Institute. Horwitz is also a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute in Canada and a contributing editor of The Freeman. He has a PhD in Economics from George Mason University and an AB in Economics and Philosophy from The University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book on classical liberalism and the family.