Sunday, September 26, 2010

Molecular Individualists

Sheldon Richman over at the Freeman has written an article, not so much defending the Tea Party movement, but attacking their detractors. His criticism is sound. The Tea Party detractors, he observes, are defending a view of political life in which the individual must submit their livelihood to a core group of experts and aristocrats. These detractors are, he says, "anti-anti-authoritarian."

If there's one thing that has me interested in libertarian political philosophy, it is this critique of central authority. It is not that we don't need central authority (Richman comments on how ironic it is that the label "anarchist" is applied to those who think the government should limit its powers to those given by the Constitution!). Rather, central authority simply ought to have a limited sphere of influence. It ought to appear self-evident that nothing can be worse for a free society than for every part of life to be politicized.

The danger with communicating libertarian political philosophy is that it can sound so utterly individualistic that it fails to have a good account for the necessity of corporate structures. That's why Richman's comment near the end of his article is so helpful. He is writing in response to the words of Mark Lilla, who has described the libertarian populism of the Tea Party movement as "estranged, aimless, and juvenile," and has complained that, "As the libertarian spirit drifted into American life, first from the left, then from the right, many began disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals.”

Richman replies,
Oh horror! Nothing offends the power elite as much as disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals. Do they fear that regular people might discover they can manage nicely without them?

The proof for Lilla is all the home-schooling going on! “What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves,” Lilla writes. Better, that is, than the experts who have delivered the “public education” system we suffer in myriad ways.

Lilla implies that these are atomistic individualists. But they’re not. They’re what I call “molecular,” or communitarian, individualists — that is, individuals cooperating with others to achieve what the politicians promise but can’t deliver.
Molecular individualists. That's a nice phrase. Communitarian individualists works equally well, but regardless of which one we choose, the point is clear. Human beings are meant to work together, just not through the mediation of the political elite.

The only difference between me and Richman is that I wouldn't call this individualism. Still, whatever you call it, I think it's a philosophical position worth defending in our time. If there's one thing I have utter distaste for, it's political elitism. What we need right now are people who can effectively debunk the myth that progress depends on having the right people wielding massive amounts of power. I couldn't say it any better than Richman:
The elitist critics can’t imagine a good reason for people distrusting big institutions that have wronged them. But whose problem is that? Is it really so hard to fathom why people would be angry at government and other institutions, such as banks and corporations, that derive what power they have from government? Only someone who finds power attractive would have a hard time understanding that.

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