Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Two Individualisms

Modern conservatism and modern liberalism both start from the idea of individualism.  But conservatives and libereals had very different ideas about the nature of the individual.  Says Jonah Goldberg in an appreciation of Yuval Levin's "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left":
Paine saw the individual as the irreducible unit of society... For Burke, no man is an island.
Paine's future society would require "tearing down the prejudices, customs and habits of the old order" while Burke believed that "Society is a complex and mysterious ecosystem, and no set of experts or 'sophisters … and calculators' can impose scientific perfection on it."

But we know that the Britain of Burke and of Paine was a Britain of an individualism that had flourished at least since the middle of the 13th century.  We are all individualists now.

The difference then between Right and Left is in the type of individualism.  Conservatives believe in a cooperative individualism, in which people enter society as individuals and cooperate voluntarily in various endeavors, from families and associations and businesses to contribute to the whole.  Liberals believe in individualist atomism, with nothing between the individual and the government.  That's what it means when you want to tear down prejudices and superstitions.  You clear away all the deadwood, and the deadwood is necessarily pre-existing institutions.

Now this is a controversial position, because liberals generally believe that their government safety net solves the problem of the atomistic individual thrown up by unregulated capitalism and alienated from himself and society, whereas the Burkean conservative approach leaves people "on their own."

But I believe that it is liberals that leave people "on their own."  In conservative-land people are free to design cooperative institutions any way they want, and they do.  In liberal-land it is the government that designs the collective, and if your needs get left out, well, too bad.

I am saying that liberals are trying to solve a problem that they themselves have created, and the problem is created by their conception of the individual as oppressed by traditional institutions and therefore needing to be liberated and emancipated by government force.

Of course when you diagnose modern people as alienated and oppressed individual atoms knocked around in a storm-tossed sea then you need to shelter with a government safety net to protect them from the storms of the world.  You have already defined the problem and pre-ordained the solution.

But conservatism is different.  It experiences people as naturally cooperative individuals, atoms that in their natural state combine into social molecules, the "little platoons" of civil society.  Moreover the individual is not just an aimless atom doing its Brownian motion thing, but an active individual agent, that sets forth every day trying to imagine how to contribute some idea or service to society, and then doing something about it.

On this view the great debate between right and left is an argument that begins with imagining humans as cooperative individuals or humans as atomistic individuals.  Obviously the way you imagine the human-scape, the situation of people in the modern world, will determine everything else that you see, experience as a problem, and decide to do.

The conservative idea is that the birth of individualism over two millennia ago with the individualist religions of the Axial Age leads to the birth of social and economic individualism in the breakup of serfdom.  And that leads to the breakout of the industrial revolution in the years before 1800.

Cooperative individualism requires the social atom to be a responsible self, an individual that undertakes to carry the monkey of social responsibility on his back.  It is the responsibility and the privilege of each individual to imagine and to realize how to cooperate with his fellow humans and contribute to the flourishing of society.

Atomistic individualism experiences the social atom to be a helpless self, an individual unable to orient and steer himself in a world of overbearing powers.  With no defense against power in local and beneficial associations, the atomistic individual is like a leaf in the great plazas of the modern city, blown around by the powerful winds that gust between the megastructures of government, corporation, and foundation -- with no human-sized structures to protect him from the icy blast.

Life is better as a responsible, cooperating individual.  Suppose you want to protect from large hospital bills.  Why, you can band together with like-minded individuals and form a beneficial and cooperative association for the sharing of health care risk.

But as an atomistic individual in Liberal-land, you must defer to the ruling elite and its comprehensive health care solution.  What happens if it doesn't cover you and your particular situation?  Too bad.  You call your congressman and wait 20 years. 

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