The Pernicious Myth of the Individual

Part and parcel of the counter-factual theory of natural liberty is the myth of the individual.  If man were in fact naturally free, it would be because he is his own person, because, as some libertarians say, he owns himself.  Pure and utter hogwash that only a self-blinded ideologue could possibly accept.


The term individual is derived from a Medieval Latin word, meaning “undivided being,” which is properly applied only to angels.  Let us get technical for a moment.  In logical and rhetorical (not biological) terms, the members of a group are, each of them, a species within a genus.  While we human creatures, made up of body and soul, are species belonging to the human genus, angels are made up of one undivided substance, and every angel is its own genus.   In conceiving of men and women as individuals, then, we are implicitly denying the significance of our material existence—our impulses and appetites—and also blinding ourselves to the reality that in being members of the same genus, we human beings are not radically separated from each other.  Between a dull-witted and diminutive pygmy and a brilliant and tall Scotsman, there is a common human element that is more significant in some ways than all the distinctions of height, color, and intelligence.

Classical liberals and libertarians will immediately jump to the wrong conclusion and sniff out, from any critique of individualism, some version of collectivism or even socialism.

At this point in a debate or discussion, some unwary conservative will leap in to say that when ordinary people use the term individual they mean no more than “person” or (in America) “guy,” as in: “I went into the bar and I met this individual with an interesting background…”  In this sense, individual is only hyperurban jargon for person in the same way that “perpetrator” is police jargon for criminal.  The decay of precise usage, however, may be less harmless than our unwary conservative thinks.  In this case, the misuse and overuse of “individual” is used to perpetuate one of the favorite American myths, that ours is an exceptional nation, founded by “rugged individualists” who left settled communities in Britain and Europe to come to a New World, where they never stopped moving from place to place in search of opportunity and adventure.

A closer look at our colonization and migration patterns reveals a different story: in many cases, towns along the Atlantic seaboard and later in the Middle West were settled by family groups and something like whole villages.  Outside of Rockford there were Scottish settlements (Argyll and Caledonia) established by a group of related Lowland families who had been transported to Argyll.  Going West, American frontiersmen were less often lone individualists like the mythical Daniel Boone than they were men of family and community, like the real Daniel Boone.

The proper word for a human being, considered in his own right, is “person,” and some conservatives such as John Lukacs have preferred to speak of persons.  It is a neutral word, that does not specify the human being’s relations to his society.  Women, children, and slaves are all persons and possessed of human dignity, though it may be quite misleading to speak of them as individuals.  Is a newborn or pre-born infant an individual?  It hardly seems likely, but if not an individual than in what sense is the infant to be protected?  Pro-life advocates will leap in to say that he is a “legal person with rights,” but that is transparently absurd.  Even a five year old child cannot vote, sit on a jury, make a contract, or sue in court.  The confusing misuse of terms encourages a fatal misuse of human persons.

Marxists and libertarians would like us to accept their accounts, in which collectivism and individualism are the only two choices.  But, before liberals invented the individual and leftists invented the collective hive, ordinary people and philosophers understood very well that, while human persons were distinct, they inevitably existed in a familial and social context.  So long as we permit Marxists and libertarians to delude us with their fantasies, we shall continue the destructive work they begun by classical liberals and continued by Marxists, namely, the dismantling of all our fundamental social institutions from the family to the Church.

In fact, liberals and leftists by and large agree on the significance of the individual.  It is true that Marxists place great on the state as the mechanism by which the needs of the individual are satisfied, but both see traditional institutions (marriage, parenthood, the church, etc.) as obstacles to the individual’s fulfillment.  The goal is more or less the same.  When the Marxist state gradually withers away, all that will be left are human individuals pursuing individual happiness.

Let us then try to speak of persons, rather than of individuals.  The word “person” does not imply radical independence or complete self-sufficiency.  If such creatures as liberal individuals ever existed, they would be entirely powerless, incapable of banding together to resist the growing power of the despotic state.  Statists and collectivists understand this reality, which is one of the reasons they make war on the family and the Church, which are independent sources of authority capable of protecting the rights of the members.

The individualist fantasy grows out of the delusion of natural liberty, but it is a conservative insight to detect these sorts of errors.  The atheist conservative David Hume was a great lover of political liberty and for that reason set out to refute the myth of the social contract and natural liberties.  He put his argument into a nutshell with the simple statement that “man born into a family is compelled to sustain society.”  In the liberals’ imaginary state of nature, which is only approximated in periods of great crisis, man would truly be (in the Latin proverb) wolf to man, and the strongest, most violent, and least scrupulous wolf would rule and exploit the rest, until he was displaced by an even stronger, more violent, and less scrupulous rival.  In the 19th century George Fitzhugh, a political theorist combating the spread of liberalism, argued that a society based on liberty and equality would end up subjecting the weak and the moral to exploitation by the powerful and ruthless. He also realized that the response would not be the restoration of the old social order but a socialist revolution.

Man is by nature a corporate being who belongs to a family, a tribe, or a religious brotherhood. It is only within a society, especially in a civilized society, that family members, kinsmen, neighbors, and co-religionists can cooperate in protecting each other from the depredations of thugs, gang-leaders and the would-be petty tyrants who administer the organs of the modern state.

Why does any of this matter, someone might ask?  Is this all not just a debate over the language of political theory?  Let us look at an example, which can clarify the difference between the true conservative and the Liberals who call themselves conservative.  Suppose a Cincinnati art gallery outraged local sentiment by installing an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs, and suppose further that the local sheriff shot down the exhibit as indecent.  The leftist response would be to sue in the Federal courts for the protection of the gallery-owner’s individual rights on the grounds of the First Amendment.  If the leftists were more candid, they would admit that they had small use for traditional marriage or morality, which they condemned as “homophobic.”

Classical Liberals, Libertarians, and self-styled conservatives, while they might disapprove of the photographs, would generally defend the owner’s individual right to self-expression, typically citing Voltaire’s famous statement, “I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Is anyone so stupid as to believe such nonsense?  Let’s put a little meat on the bare bones of Voltaire’s rhetoric.

I am a Jew and while I disagree with the Nazi Party’s plan to exterminate my people, I will defend to the death their right to argue for genocide.


I am a parent who wants to protect my child from evil, but while I disagree with child-pornographers, I will defend to the death their right to create and advocate kiddy porn, so long as no real children are exploited.

The conservative would look at the issue from two perspectives, the one moral and the other political.  Understanding the natural law, he will have no sympathy for Gay Rights or its propagandists.  Turning to the Constitution, he will note, first, that the First Amendment was written to limit or deny the power of the Federal Government in matters of religion and political speech.  He would also note that this government is called a “federal,” because it is a league of sovereign or semi-sovereign states in which each state was supposed to be able to manage its own affairs.  The 10th amendment was drafted, specifically, to prevent the federal government from dictating either to the state of Ohio or to a city chartered by that state.  If he is of a philosophical bent, he will recognize that the federal principles of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights go back to an understanding of local government and the principle of subsidiarity rooted both in the Old Testament and in the writings of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Althusius.  Case dismissed.

Then, the argument is not merely theoretical but touches on a topic of vital interest to most Americans. It concerns both questions of marriage and the family and basic morality and the rights of states, counties, and cities to manage their affairs without dictates from Washington or unfunded federal mandates.

The division between the conservative and the libertarian positions opened upon in a debate we sponsored on whether one was ever justified in summoning the federal authorities to intervene in a local dispute, as in, for example, the Cincinnati case.  I do not remember all the details, except that Murray Rothbard and I were on one side, and Justin Raimondo and—I think—Walter Block on the other.  Many libertarians were aghast that Rothbard should take the conservative position, but that is because they failed to appreciate Rothbard’s conservative instincts.  As the debate progressed, and we made the argument that civil libertarians were a primary cause of the growth in state power, Justin—Rothbard’s most loyal follower—broke down and conceded our point, “I can’t help it,” he confessed, “you guys are right.”  I date the beginning of Justin’s continuous growth in sanity to that event.

When in the next chapter, I take up foreign policy, I shall tell the tale of how Rothbard and I became first allies and then friends.  What we formed was a running debate between serious libertarians (Ralph Raico, Ron Hamowy, Hans Hermann Hoppe, David Gordon, and Justin among others) and steadfast conservatives (Sam Francis, Clyde Wilson, Chris Kopff, Joe Sobran).  The two wings of the coalition were divided on any number of issues, but they were united in their opposition to the increase of state power and in their refusal to sell out their principles to curry favor with politicians or mercenary Washington think tanks like Cato and Heritage.  Naturally, this coalition only increased the contempt the Washington “professionals” had for both groups.  Ed Crane of Cato accused Rothbard and Rockwell of selling out to the moralizing right and failing to defend “sexual diversity.”  They responded by dubbing him, “Sexual Diversity Eddy” or just S.D. Crane.

When it came to forming coalitions, front groups, and movements, Murray was an old stager, and in dealing with him I sometimes was reminded of some of the old lefties I used to know, but Murray was cautious.  He had been burned once too often by weaklings.  Jerome Tucille tells the story of how Rothbard managed to alienate nearly all his allies in the Libertarian Party until he finally had only himself and Tucille.  With me, by contrast, he did everything to avoid a rupture to the point that he tried to avoid conversations on basic issues.  We’re a coalition, not a movement, he used to explain, and we can be free to disagree.

Our most fundamental disagreement was on individual rights, which Rothbard made the centerpiece of his moral and political philosophy.  His famous rule of non-aggression was rooted in the classical liberal notion of rights.  When I told him that rights were a philosophical fantasy and the social contract a myth, he bristled.  One day, over a little gin, he concluded that for him rights were a means to securing the protection of liberty, and he acknowledged that I accomplished the same object by insisting on natural duties that arise from one’s position in life, what Bradley referred to in a brilliant if condescending essay on “My Station and Its Duties.”  A mother’s duty to her children, a father’s duty to his family, a neighbor’s duty to his community should not be invaded by higher levels of social organization such as a state or federal government.  What do we call such invasions, I was asked.  The answer is simple: tyranny. It was on this understanding that Murray and I found ourselves on the same side of this and many other debates with his disciples and colleagues.

The myth of the naturally free individual, while it appeals to the American love of liberty, is actually subversive of all the liberties we have enjoyed.  For conservatives—and morally serious libertarians–to invoke such language “in a good cause” is to begin the process of going over to the enemy.