Individualism, Conservatism, Collectivism
Tim Montgomerie and Phillip Blond may believe that Libertarians and Socialists are bedfellows, but they're wrong
A link on Conservative Home (‘Heresy of the week: Individualism is not conservative’) to a labyrinthine Los Angeles Times review of the sprawling book Bubbles by German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk prompted a Twitter exchange on Individualism and Conservatism. We find two of today’s prominent UK conservative personalities in a high level of agreement on the broad subject of individualism and libertarianism:
@timmontgomerie on this we are in complete agreement Libertarianism is Statism and each leads to the other
Let’s be fair. Twitter is not the place for subtle philosphical nuances, although the terse Ludwig Wittgenstein might well have enjoyed the 140-character genre.
But what exactly are Montgomerie/Blond asserting? That as a matter of political or moral principle free(r) people create a ‘vacuum’ into which the Big State pours? Or that in practice free(r) people are likely to create conditions in which a bigger (and bigger) state flourishes?
Sam Bowman over at the Adam Smith Institute enters the fray at greater length:
The sort of atomism that ConHome's writer is rejecting is, I think, quite different to the sort of individualism that I and many other libertarians adhere to, and is very rare. Even the most grisly caricature of a selfish libertarian would have to admit that she could only get rich by trading with others.
The core of libertarianism is the belief that people can only prosper by cooperating peacefully with each other, socially, economically and spiritually. Individualism, yes – the interests of individual humans should always be our ultimate concern. But atomism, the idea that men are islands? No.
Basically, there are only two forms of government:
(a) Those (very few) deriving explicitly from the US Declaration of Independence: Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
(b) Slavery or subservience, where the consent of the governed is highly qualified (Western Europe) or substantively attenuated (Russia) or faked (Belarus) or openly denied (China)
The Americans’ proclamation of the very idea of the ‘consent of the governed’ was a momentous moral event. It defied every political form of rule that had occurred on the planet up to that point, and continues to defy many political forms that continue today.
Look at us. We cheer lustily when British athletes win medals at London2012, then sing ‘God Save the Queen’. Our supreme loyalty is to a person and family that have never been elected.
Meanwhile over the in United States we see a tragic accelerating degradation in the idea of the consent of the governed, brought about by staggering growth in federal and other state spending and dizzying public debt. This creates a context in which it sounds quite natural for a Democrat campaign video to turn the Declaration of Independence on its head and proclaim that “Government is the only thing we all belong to”, not to mention the bizarre Obama Life of Julia presentation that portrays the modern American woman as a vacuous weak beneficiary of collectivist largesse.
So the Montgomerie/Blond tweetings and Conservative Home’s heretics wildly miss the point. If you start founding your political principles on the core idea of consent, you make government part of the wider idea of contract and time-honoured, cross-cultural codes of individual responsibility supporting contracts freely negotiated and freely accepted. This is where Conservatism and Libertarianism broadly (but of course not wholly) overlap, and where they are radically different in principle from Socialism/Statism.
Socialism/Statism occupy (sic) a totally different political and moral space based on the paramount role of something inhumanly abstract, above and beyond anything as trivial/irrelevant as an individual’s consent: the ’99 percent’, the ‘collective’ or ‘society’ - or (at an even higher level of mystic mumbling) the ‘nation’ or the ‘race’.
Such Socialist/Statist/Nationalist thinking demands in principle the individual’s ultimate loyalty (and therefore subservience) to something that excludes a priori any idea of individual consent. Libertarians and socialists as bedfellows? Drivel!
Yes, there is an all-important, wider social dimension of human existence. But does that wider dimension have an independent, immanent legitimacy? The collectivists claiming that it does want to grab the key to the doorway of that supposed legitimacy, and thereby force others to do things they may not want to do. Slavery.
Does it all matter anyway? Yes it does. Take the Eurozone. The ever-more ambitious machinations needed to keep the structure from collapsing (see this magnificent effort from George Soros) are justified in any utilitarian way you can imagine but never ‘consent of the governed’. No EU leader dares open that Pandora’s Box, lest dramatic impossible-to-answer questions about the moral legitimacy of their deepest policies fly out and spoil things.
More generally the race is on round the planet between hundreds of millions of people using new cheap technology to empower themselves independently of the state, and clunking armies and organisations attached like barnacles to statist structures intent on preserving their privileged position and ‘control’.
In these circumstances the moral and practical high ground lies with the libertarian tendency, and a greater acceptance of the idea that the most flexible and sustainable way to make large numbers of people live together well is to encourage the order that emerges spontaneously from gazillions of free decisions.
States are simply going to fail in their core functions if they try to curb or even ‘nudge’ the soaring social complexity that comes from massed human creativity. Look around you in modern Britain and watch it happening.
The challenge for the UK’s Conservatives (and Socialists) in this context is to accept that espousing and refining core libertarian principles is their best chance of redefining the future political argument in a way that makes both practical and moral sense.
Cameron’s Conservatives are struggling; UKIP are working busily in that direction, and not doing too badly. Which of our anachronistic wheezing major political formations will get there first?
Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer: www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets@charlescrawford
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