Individualists believe that though efficiency, complexity, order and even morality itself may emerge from the co-operation of many people — the idea of “emergent order” is key for most individualist theorists — the basic moral rules to not change as organizations change structure, scope or function. This is the great challenge of individualism, that the common, servile and tyrannical tendency to let emerging power in groups automatically grant these groups authority, is utterly wrong-headed.

Enlightenment liberalism — including early utilitarianism and modern libertarianism — advanced the breathtaking thesis that the rules we regularly apply to the singular or the weak also must apply to the collective and strong, just as the rules that apply to the vast run of humanity under the governance of a few must also apply to those few. Tyrants are judged by the same rules we judge peons. Big groups must adhere to rules established also for small groups.

This is equality of rights under the law.

But this rubs up against the grain of a lot of human thought and practice, which tends to let is determine ought in crude and vicious ways.

Against common practice, liberals and libertarians assert a radical principle, here formulated by Auberon Herbert:

We hold that what one man cannot morally do, a million men cannot morally do, and government, representing many millions of men, cannot do.

Now, this particular formulation (there are many formulations of the principle) has a may/can problem hidden by the use of “morally.” So let me translate precisely:

We hold that what a lone individual may not do, a million, co-operatively, may not do, and government, representing many millions, also may not do.

It is worth noting that this flies in the face of what I call the “progressive” view of government, as formulated by Abraham Lincoln:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves in their separate, and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere. The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions. The first that in relation to wrongs embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and nonperformance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself. From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need for government.

The  problem with Lincoln’s very pragmatic approach is that he buries an obvious fact of political governance by the institution of the state: that it traditionally carries on by means that otherwise would be defined as “wrong” when non-state individuals or groups would pursue such means. Chiefly, by initiating force, bullying populations into submission, establishing territory based not on consent but by conveniences of warfare, and extracting funds by fiat rather than trade.

The Lincoln view of rules about government follows from a tacit and complete acceptance of traditional state practice, and based on a loose conception of “need.”

The tension between the individualist moral principle (Herbert) and the collectivist expediency principle (Lincoln) is that the latter provides no ready, foundational standard upon which to judge the misdeeds of those in government. The alleged good being aimed at completely buries the possibility that a great evil is being committed to achieve that “need.” Just consider the short list of good things government does without suppressing wrongs, and a common evil means that states regularly use to achieve the good:

  • public roads = built on stolen land rather than purchased land, using corvée labor rather than contracted labor, and paid for by confiscated wealth rather than invested wealth (as in a joint stock company, which also is a way for individuals to co-operatively provide goods)
  • public schools = organized by compulsion, paid for by confiscation (taxation), and filled with conscript students
  • state-run charities = “generosity” compelled from the many, by confiscation, rather than real generosity of volunteers and hirelings distributing goods collected by donation (traditional and voluntary charities)
  • estates of the deceased = rather than rely upon customary distribution of abandoned goods, and contracted-for disposal of property left technically uncontrolled by the death of the owner, state managed probate and other institutions heavy-handedly corral the property of the deceased into one system, rather than letting informal and willed formal agencies do so at rates agreed-to by the deceased, or by heirs and assigns as established by custom or law.
  • the machinery of government itself = here we get to the basic institutions allegedly designed to produce security, but which almost universally use methods otherwise left to criminal organizations that endanger security: forced compliance, membership, and support.

Of course, the idea that governmental institutions could be engaged by contract never really crossed Lincoln’s mind. It didn’t cross many minds at all until Gustave de Molinari floated the notion of competitive contractual government, formally, in 1849. Before then, the core individualist thesis was often asserted as the basis of republican government, but eyes quickly turned when confronted with the traditional means of establishing government: sheer force of some against others.

So, the efflorescence of the individualist idea came in the mid-19th century, with Molinari’s “Production of Security,” Herbert Spencer’s “The Right to Ignore the State,” and Josiah Warren’s “individual sovereignty.” The idea of sovereign government finally had some competition. And the core individualist idea had some claim on the purchase of our moral imaginations with added levels of consistency.

Which, all in all, is a good thing in a moral principle. Not exactly a common practice, but hey: common practice not too long ago included gross tyranny and commonplace violence. Now we can contemplate a world where pockets of tyranny may be suppressed without gross, mass injustice, and violence would be minimized to retaliation and defense, with a focus always on compensation for unjust loss.

We are a long way from such a free society, but the vision  of it is clearer than before. Many folks are practicing the methods of a freer society already, and the core individualist thesis about morality may even be gaining traction in unexpected places.

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