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Individualist totalitarians

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Saturday, Jan 12, 2008

Ezra Klein made this comment in response to the recent flap about libertarian Republican Ron Paul’s past racist associates. Building on a previous post, he writes,


It’s this sect of racial purists hiding beneath the furthermost edge of the Libertarian tent that I was thinking of when I talked about the breakaway sects dangerously totalitarian individualists yesterday (though separatists might have been a better word than individualist). Because the state poses the immediate threat, acting as the primary engine of social progress, the language of individual rights and anarchic devolution is useful to these folks. But what they seek to build is not a freer society, but a purer one. One in which a certain group of the genetically (or, at times, religiously) chosen are free to rebuild the world in their image, and impose what rules, laws, regulations, and standards are necessary to keep that picture gleaming.


That view of government seems idealistic, but it’s simply descriptive—the institutions of the state shape society, organizing the rules by which it is structured and enforcing them (evenly or unevenly). It’s not clear how else social change could be measured or codified without looking at changes in legislation. 


One doesn’t even have to be a libertarian to potentially choke on the notion that the state is the “primary engine of social progress”, because many Americans seem to regard government first and foremost as coercive—a parasitical tax-collecting and bureaucracy-imposing beast that feeds on ordinary people trying to go about their business. Naive individualism tends to underestimate the degree to which people interact and shape one another’s possibilities, so naturally it regards government as an unnecessary nuisance. Individualism at the same time underrates the scope to which one person can affect a community; it presumes people are easily able to contain their business to a small realm of privacy and do without the validation, recognition, or assistance of anyone else, that individuals can spontaneously generate their own ethics and desires, as if these were in no circumstances other-directed, when it seems far more likely that the precise inverse is the case. This kind of individualism invokes liberty, but in doing so circumscribes an individual’s sphere of action, but it neglects to account for the pleasures of influence and being influenced, things we seem to willingly and routinely sacrifice liberty in its purest sense for. So it may be that those preoccupied with their individualism are actually compensating for their failure to have much influence, to garner much recognition.


(On a related theme, Brad DeLong links to this essay about libertarian authoritarianism.)

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