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Individualism Trumpsby James E. Miller
In a recent Dish piece titled, "Can American Conservativism Be Saved?" Andrew Sullivan attempts to carve out a way for his temperamental political outlook to survive among narcissistic collectivism. Reflecting on an essay written by Wilfred McClay, the former New Republic editor describes America's rugged geography as a force that helped, in part, to "unleash the animal spirits of capitalism" at the beginning of the last century. The "bigness" of Californian mountains, the flat, wideness of the Midwestern plain, and overall wild of the frontier was a unique driver of individualism in the Gilded Age.
The endless possibility of man's manifest destiny to tame and conquer nature has, in Sullivan's view, done great damage to the idea of community in America. As a disciple of conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, he takes offense to the deep "individualism" that he sees as "a form of contempt for tradition and society." Not only does the singular viewpoint serve as an undermining force to community, but Sullivan contends it also interferes with the ability to conceive of a necessary boundary between the material world and consideration for existing within an historical context.
In many ways, Sullivan's criticism rings identical to that of other conservative writers of the classical bent. Thinkers influenced by the great Russell Kirk are apt to dismiss any political theory they find as too rigid. Ideology, in Kirk's words, "is a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise; but in cruel fact what ideology has created is a series of terrestrial hells." Accepting "no deviation from the Absolute Truth" is what makes someone an ideologue, and thus incapable of discovering a real, agreeable solution to society's ills.
On the other side, the conservative envisions himself as pragmatic – a kind of scientific thinker who considers all options before making a choice. Many times, this comes down to a purely utilitarian judgement and one devoid of real consideration for concrete morality. The aversion to drastic change exists; but it occasionally gets lost in the mix of wanting to stay "respectable" in certain social circles. Heaven forbid you appear as an outcast to those whom you already fundamentally disagree with.
While conservatism portrays itself as a totally reasonable outlook, individualism is tossed into this sea of dogmas where it is left to swim next to the most illogical of collectivist yearnings. The caricature of the rugged, boot-strapped man of gruff exterior is often used as an unbelievable straw man to opine on the limits of liberty. Laboring in a vacuum, void of societal interaction, is a label mistakenly applied to proponents of the idea that the individual is key to understanding human behavior.
Sullivan is guilty of this identity game, and does not fully comprehend the irrefutable truth he is grappling to refute. He assumes those who view the sole being as the focal point of all action and purpose somehow hold a grudge against society, tradition, culture, religion, and common decency. "Selfish," that overused, trite, and flimsy word, is the favorite toss-around adjective of both progressives and conservatives who wish to denigrate their opponents while appealing to a higher standard. It sounds romantic to paint oneself as being a selfless martyr for the greater good. But humbleness needs no articulation. More often than not, the man boasting of his own sacrifice has not contributed all that much.
Individualism is not a creed based on a desire to be left alone to live life in accordance with whatever principles one wishes to adopt. It is not solipsism or Sullivan's emotive phrase, "simply philistine." It is not the heroic conqueror of mountains. And it is not the greedy, top-hatted capitalist working children to the bone for ever-marginal profits.
Individualism is not an excuse to indulge in the forbidden fruit – it is at the heart of what C.S. Lewis called the "Absolute." It is in tune with the logical and moral fabric of the universe by the very truth that only individuals can perform action. Governments, states, groups, associations, unions, villages, cities, towns, and society in general are made up of nothing else but singular peoples.
When it's said that a city "acts" to abolish a distasteful practice, the real meaning is that a small minority acts to impose a decree. The phrase "we as a society" holds the same meaning: some have decided for the rest. Often the rights and liberty of the dissenters are treated as an inconvenient roadblock to bulldoze over to compel acceptance. Appeals to collective response are only nebulous pleas that lack any real denotation. This is why folks with small brains and loud mouths are often found begging the public for some kind of action.
Just as Say's Law holds that consumption cannot come without prior production, so says the natural law that only individuals may act. Individualism does not prevent what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls "The Blast" – "the understanding that you are more than what someone else did to you, that you are more than what socioeconomics makes of you" – but it is the only epistemological gateway for such to occur. This is where Sullivan trips up and is forced to adopt the leftist view he disagrees with, or at least does on paper.
Prudential judgment is undoubtedly good, and there is no reason why the individualist cannot make that his disposition. The question of personal beliefs may range from hedonism to monatism but the inherent rationality for individualism remains. It is timeless and may very well reside in the Logos. Quoting McClay, Sullivan contends that rationalism – which is typically the justification for individualism – has a tendency to "foreclose to us" the ability to lift ourselves from "purposefulness" and "the enduring need for transcendence." This statement runs smack dab in the middle of an impenetrable wall of logic, as only the individual can conceive of the spiritual world and the goal of its Creator. That subjectivism is inherent to human choice does not disprove the objective "good." If anything, they complement each other in the never-ending rift between choosing the moral or evil.
Individualism is not a philosophy up for pragmatic debate because opponents must necessarily be acting in accordance with that which they deny. It is similar to Lewis's analogy of attempting to pour wine from a bottle into the "cavity at the base of that same bottle." It is a credo that remains true no matter the argument faced. There can be no other way, less the denier loses all conscious understanding.
So while the conservatives, liberals, statists, fascists, and socialists whittle away at shaping the perfect society, they will mistakenly believe the populace is voluntarily bending to their will. Just as there is no feasible way for one to understand the desires of the numerous, it is also not possible to act in the consent of others who have not given their due word. Limits and humility have a definite role to play in civilized society. Conservatism's veneration of tradition is also good by itself. But they don't necessarily come close to the logical standard of viewing the world as made up of individual beings with moral agency.
If Sullivan were true to form, he would stand with individualists in opposing any and all government centralization. Every step the state takes in growth is a step civil society takes in minimization. Subsidiarity is rendered meaningless with an ever-encroaching federal government. Not starkly opposing the incessant diktats coming out of Washington is to submit to idolatry and material force. In short, Andrew Sullivan is confused, and it's not a surprise considering his inability to follow the logic of his own proposition.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Send him mail