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How to be social while staying civilized

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2009, on the World Wide Web.

The latest issue of The Freeman (January/February 2009) — is now available online at their new and glossy revamped website. I mention this partly for its own sake, but partly also because, one of the things that you will find in that new issue, at the new website, is this:

Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain't So!

By Charles Johnson !!!@@e2;20ac;a2; January 2009

Individualists get a bad rap in politics these days. That should come as no surprise; politics these days is dominated by electoral politics, and electoral politics is an essentially anti-individualistic enterprise. With free markets and other forms of voluntary association, people who can't agree on what's worthwhile can go their own ways. But the point of government elections is to give people in the political majority a means for forcing through their favorite laws, projects, and rulers over the objections of people in the political minority, and making everybody obey those laws, fund or participate in those projects, and acknowledge those rulers.

Still, even if it is unrealistic to expect individualism to get much respect from people who are deeply invested in electoral politics, it's not too much to ask them not to try to score political points by totally distorting our position. In any case, if they do, it's worth taking the time to set things straight.

For example, consider The Social Animal by neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (September 12). He begins by quoting Barry Goldwater's argument (from The Conscience of a Conservative) that Every man for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being. . . . Conservatism's first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?

Brooks says that Goldwater's ideas seem to come from a vision of human life based on solitary, rugged individuals—the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe. Brooks protests that a tide of research in the human and social sciences has demonstrated that Goldwater's old-fashioned individualist notions aren't supported by the latest empirical evidence because, Brooks tells us, human beings are social creatures by nature, closely intertwined with each other in the fabric of a shared social life.

. . .

Maybe Brooks is right that Goldwater's legacy is holding Republicans back politically. Individualistic ideas can be a tough sell, particularly since the obsessive focus on electoral politics as a panacea for every social ill ensures that genuinely individualistic ideas are almost never presented in the media or discussed in public forums. But whether he's right or wrong about the best way for Republicans to fully modernize, I don't care much about the Republican Party or its political prospects, or about Barry Goldwater's reputation. I do care about the prospects for individualism and truly freed markets. And Brooks's case against them commits a series of serious and misleading errors….

— Charles Johnson, The Freeman (Jan/Feb 2009): Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain't So!

Read the whole thing.

The title of this post, for what it’s worth, was the original title of the column, and will make some more sense once you’ve read the article (the current title is based on the fact that it appeared in the regular It Just Ain’t So! department).

As always, I’d like to thank Sheldon Richman for the (very flattering) invitation, and for his very helpful editorial work. I’m especially happy to get the chance to put a distinctly Tuckerite understanding of individualism, complete with a cheer for wildcat unionism, and a reference to William Gillis’s freed markets, into an official publication of the Foundation for Economic Education.

See also:

6 replies to How to be social while staying civilized Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Nick Manley -- Classical Liberal Nightmare

    I am glad you’re addressing this issue. It irks me when the statist left mocks individualist notions — as if Republicans were somehow the true represenatives of it. I am not saying all statist leftists do this, but it’s certainly out there.

  2. Bob Kaercher

    Congratulations, Charles. I’ll be curious to see if you get any reaction to your favorable citation of workers’ unions in a pro-individualist discussion of individualism.

  3. Bob Kaercher

    BTW, I just saw that your blog post on “How Do You Ask a Man to be the Last Man to Die for a Mistake?” is linked on today’s Antiwar.com.

    Man, you’re everywhere now!

  4. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-01-29 – Welcome, Antiwarriors:

    […] Bob Kaercher hipped me to the fact that my post How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? is being featured today at the front page on Antiwar.com. I’m flattered; and presumably this also means that for the time being I’ll be getting a lot of readers who are more or less new to the blog. […]

  5. Gary Chartier

    Charles, this is a great piece, very clearly and effectively making the case for the view that Tuckerite individualism is not an alternative to belief in human sociality but its most consistent expression. Marvelous.

· October 2009 ·

  1. Rad Geek

    (This is coming back to things long after the fact, but I was recently reminded of Bob Kaercher’s comment here.)


    I’ll be curious to see if you get any reaction to your favorable citation of workers’ unions in a pro-individualist discussion of individualism.

    As it happens, I did get some response — at least, I got one comment from David Denholm, beginning Including ‘workers’ unions’ as an example of voluntary cooperation is completely inappropriate and then reading me the Blockhead script on the evils of coercive unionism.

    I reply at length on the form of unionism I defend, along with an extended discussion of the history of the NLRB system, the radical anti-statist unions that preceded the NLRB, and the confusion involved in the common idiot notion that closed shop contracts, union shop contracts, or strikes (?!) are, per se, exercises of coercion, rather than (as in fact they are) hardball negotiating tactics that could perfectly well exist in a freed market, and which were put into use well before Wagner.

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