Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cue Card Libertarianism: 'No man is an island'

No man is an island, says the poet... As for me, I see myself as a sort of a peninsula -- with a good bar located near my connection with the mainland.

The thing with the 'no man is an island' argument is that those who normally use that line have a wrong idea about individualism. They have an idea that 'individualism' is some kind of 'atomistic individualism' -- another line frequently used. But a genuine individualism has no need to be 'atomistic'; one of the pleasures of life is interacting with others, enjoying the pleasure of their company (and their drinks cabinet), gaining knowledge from those who have it, and trading with others to help achieve our values. Life without other people would be a pretty miserable existence.

The key to genuine individualism is the important aspect of choice: when interactions with others are voluntary -- are chosen -- then there's no problem, and indeed an enormous benefit to being and dealing with others. It's when the element of choice is removed that things go awry, and conditions begin to deteriorate. Once interaction is no longer voluntary, then other people become -- not a benefit -- but a threat; our values are up for grabs by others, and we have no way of defending against their destruction by busybodies who declare that everyone else's life is their business.

This is why libertarians make better supporters of real community values than so-called 'communitarians' who would force their values on others. Communities in which the interaction of individuals is voluntary make better places to live than those in which interaction is forced, and where all our lives are lived in the public realm, meat for others to pick over like carrion.

That's been a basic insight shared by thinkers from Aristotle to Jane Jacobs, summarised by Ayn Rand when she boldly declared "civilization is the progress towards a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting free of man from men."

No man is an island, entire of himself -- but it's good to have a choice about who we invite ashore.
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Further reading: 'Individualism, Naughty or Nice?' -- Chapter VII of The Virtue of Liberty, by Tibor Machan. (Foundation for Economic Education, 1994) Online here.

This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here.

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