Romney is promoting the God of "I": individual accomplishment and personal success. Obama is promoting the God of "we," in which the fates of all are intertwined.Replace "Obama" more broadly with "the left" and "Romney" with "the right" and you get a pretty typical understanding of American politics. I'll hand it to the author of the article: she has a very balanced approach to this dichotomy and frames it provocatively in the context of Christianity's theological history. The whole thing is worth a read.
But that's not exactly what I'm going to talk about. What I want to talk about, instead, is what eventually one me over to "libertarianism," or perhaps more correctly "classical liberalism," in the first place. The most abiding critique of libertarianism is that the individualism on which it is based is immoral or impractical or both. Clearly we all need each other. The human race cannot survive without cooperation among different members of the species. We all owe our success to others. These observations have both moral and practical implications for our political philosophy such that the radical individualism underlying libertarian philosophy must be false.
Until fairly recently, I more or less accepted this critique of libertarianism. What changed everything for me was ultimately an essay called, "Individualism: True and False," by none other than F. A. Hayek (it always comes back to Hayek). In it, he gives the following definition of "true" individualism:
What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But its basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them. The next step in the individualistic analysis of society, however, is directed against the rationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism. It is the contention that, by tracing the combined effects of individual actions, we discover that many of the institutions on which human achievements rest have arisen and are functioning without a designing and directing mind; that, as Adam Ferguson expressed it, "nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action but not the result of human design"; and that the spontaneous collaboration of free men often creates things which are greater than their individual minds can ever fully comprehend. This is the great theme of Josiah Tucker and Adam Smith, of Adam Ferguson and Edmund Burke, the great discovery of classical political economy which has become the basis of our understanding not only of economic life but of most truly social phenomena.The above quote is dense, but I have decided to post it in its entirety so as not to deprive the reader of Hayek's sophisticated explanation of the core issues. Having said that, I will now try to explain what effect this passage had on me and what I think should be the real selling point of libertarianism.
To ask whether we should focus on the individual or focus on the collective is simply the wrong question. The right question is, what is a good society and how does it work? That's the question to which I believe Hayek and others have given the best answers.
A good society is one in which people cooperate. We can do far more if we specialize into different tasks and share the fruits of our labor than if we each keep to ourselves. We are also far healthier and happier if we have right relationships with one another: friends, families, and so on. In a good society, each individual has a role to play in benefiting every other individual, whether directly or indirectly.
A good society also consists solely of people who do not and cannot have access to the kind of knowledge which would be necessary to delegate to all individuals the tasks, relationships, and roles which individuals ought to play in society. It is not possible to "construct" or "plan" a good society.
Here we have a conundrum: a good society must consist of individuals working together toward the common good, but those individuals can't have any idea what precisely they are working toward.
Classical liberalism succeeds where other political philosophies fail because it (a) sees the conundrum as it is and (b) provides a solution. Which means, yes, classical liberalism is indeed concerned with our collective destiny. You must keep this in mind as you read about individual liberty, private property, constitutional constraints on government, and so on: all of these ideas are meant to provide a framework under which individuals may work together toward the common good without actually having a plan for doing so. I say this merely by way of invitation (not even introduction) to the classical liberal way of thinking; if I were to attempt to provide the complete answer, I would be stuck writing all night.
As I see it, modern American liberalism fails at point (a), since they insist that we can answer questions which are simply unanswerable, while American conservatives usually fail at point (b) by clinging to traditions which don't necessarily address this conundrum effectively.
I agree with conservatives that our moral traditions play a key role in the constitution of a good society. However, I do not agree that these moral traditions are beyond question or revision, and I also do not agree with the proposed application of said moral traditions. There many things which may be immoral to do, and yet it may also be immoral to prevent a person from doing those things.
With liberals I have a tougher time because it is generally quite difficult to get them to understand the knowledge problem. Many of my peers are attracted to liberalism because they are smart and believe that smart people ought to work together toward the common good. In this sense I, too, am a liberal. The difference is that I believe we must work toward the common good beginning with the humble acknowledgement that we don't know precisely what that is, and the broader our impact on the world the less of an idea we will have whether we have done good or bad. In my opinion this difference explains the modern liberal's obsession with statistics: the gap between rich and poor, under-representation from minorities, median incomes in third world countries, average scores on standardized tests--the list goes on and on, because there's always another aggregate quantity to try and fix. If the liberal could only understand how little we really know about where these numbers come from, he might be able to understand why I oppose his policy proposals.
I hope this is a helpful contrast. It certainly helps clarify in my own mind why I believe as I do, and why I believe America needs a different direction politically.