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Saturday, May 31, 2008

My Prediction: The Return of Individualism

UPDATE!!! Click here for an article that was recently published on this very subject in the Wall Street Journal

Recently, two socialist friends of mine complained to me about how “individualist” our society is. I found this shocking considering the way socialism dominated the 20th century. As a law student I have studied how basic principles such as limited government, division of powers, the right to contract and private property have been undermined in the law. The comments made me realize that many Americans don’t realize the gravity of what has happened to thier own rights.

This essay discusses what individualism is, and expresses why I predict that it will soon return to glory. The failures of collectivist 20th century ideas like Medicare and Social Security will drive Americans toward individualism, while new technology will provide the means. I could discuss many issues to illustrate this point such as privacy issues or foreign wars, but I have chosen private property because I think it best illustrates the point of this essay.

No doubt the remnants of 20th century collectivism consistently rear their ugly head – many baby boomers still think that their socialist programs are philosophically sound, they just weren’t managed very well. Recently, we have seen the U.S. judiciary (the very institution created to preserve our rights) spit in the face of private property rights, upholding blatant attacks on them in the form of anti-smoking laws and eminent domain abuses. This is great time to address several important issues as the rise in individualism and blowback from collectivism leads to the overturnning of these types of laws.

The American Tradition
America was founded almost entirely by people who believed - very strongly - in the power and importance of the individual. [1] So much so, that they wrote the law so that it put every individual on equal footing with the government itself. For example, if the government violated your rights, it could be sued just like any other citizen. When you went into court there was a presumption against the government, particularly in certain categories, most notably for this discussion is property rights and the right to contract. This was part of the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship, however, that part of the Constitution has been found to be just fluff according to our own Supreme Court.

When Thomas Jefferson was writing the U.S. Declaration of Independence he famously wrote that all men are entitled by their creator to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These words were lifted by John Locke’s previous work were he used the phrase, “life, liberty and property.” The problem with the word “property” was not that he and his peers did not believe in the importance of property. Quite the contrary, they believed it was essential to the free society they envisioned. Rather the problem was that many delegates wanted to phase out slavery and they did not want slave holders to use such a phrase to hinder such progress.

At the same time, the founding fathers embedded in the law (most notably the Constitution) the idea of private property rights, the right to contract, and the right to be compensated for damages to yourself and your property. This made enormous sense at the time, as the U.S. was a very individualistic society – there was a lot of small business, people had their own plots of land and were largely spread out across the country-side.

A short definition of “individualism” is that it is the idea that people should be allowed to act in their own self interest, should always be able to retain the fruits of their own labor and that violence and punishment should never be initiated to force them to act otherwise. Individualism stands in stark contrast to collectivism, which involves the fundamental concept that everyone in a society benefits from sharing, therefore everyone is entitled to share property and the fruits of everyone’s labor.

No more was this conflict more prevalent than in the exchange which European settlers originally bought Manhattan Island. The island was “bought” from the natives in exchange for a very small sum. The natives did not even realize that the settlers were intending to exclude them from the land, which is one of the rights of ownership.

The native Americans that used the Island did not live with a concept of individual property rights, and therefore did not understand the “right to exclude” others from your property. They shared the land, their food, the things in their village and practically everything else. They ate, slept and traveled together. Anyone who objected was chastised as being practically blasphemous. The Europeans on the other hand, were landowning men who revered the concept of property rights, and the certain “privileges and immunities” associated with being Englishmen. They believed that sharing was not something that could forced upon an Englishman, but rather only through mutual agreements. Otherwise that person’s own rights and privileges were being violated. The law operated to protect these.

When these Englishmen became Americans they embedded their ideas in the Constitution, and took a much broader view of human rights, applying them to all "citizens." Many felt this would eventually expand to all individuals. As Barrack Obama recently said, “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”

Many of the ideas which were central to the Constitution, such as the right to contract, were broken down during industrialization under the premise that some parties were in disadvantaged positions and needed additional protection of the law. This is a common way of thinking among collectivist societies because they are so accustomed to sharing responsibilities, that they prefer a system where they are not responsible for reviewing and negotiating their own contractual relationships. They would prefer that the law simply mandate certain arrangements. This brings about the feeling of security. This is consistent with their usual routine of sharing most things, and embedded thought pattern that there is a right to do so. Individualist are accustomed to the responsibilities of freedom. They lack any faith that interference of this sort will generally work in anyone's favor, other than politicians, even when it seems obvious that it would.

The great American individualist and freed slave, Frederick Douglas, expressed this sentiment beautifully in the last paragraph of his great speech, “What the Black Man Wants.” He said, “Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, "What shall we do with the Negro?" I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us...If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature's plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs... If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live. He will work as readily for himself as the white man.”

Often efforts made under the label of altruism actually do harm to those they intend to protect, and undermine the purported beneficiaries' ability to help themselves. Today the ideas of private property rights and the right to contract have been undermined greatly by the 20th century’s collectivist mindset brought on by industrialization and the manufacturing based economy. However, it’s vices have reared their ugly head. Faith and dependency on the collective society diminish the efforts people will expend to take responsibility for their own well being. When this becomes a belief that one is entitled to a share of other people’s wealth, it can go from mere laziness and the failure of care to outright anger and resentment. On the other hand, individualist often fail to recognize that no humans can survive alone and a single person can never be responsible for all of a great accomplishment. It is collective human activity that leads to accomplishment.

A Little of My Own Philosophy
Individualism becomes popular at times when people are desirous of acting independently – whether as a result of their own initiative or their disgust with collective failures. Americans traditionally like to provide for and have their own homes, their own transportation, and generally their own way of life. This is in contrast to many other nation’s style like China, France or the afore mentioned Native Americans. Thier style is collectivism, where people subordinate themselves to the leaders of the larger group, and generally prefer to live in collective housing units, share transportation, and have broad rules and regulations implemented upon daily life. America became more and more collectivist during the 20th century as industrialization took place throughout the country. This was largely to meet the new demands of places like New York, Detroit and Chicago where large numbers of people were crowded together, rather than very spread out like the traditional agrarian society of America. These urban people are accustomed to sharing most things in their life, and sometimes take their view to dangerous extremes, endorsing an outright entitlement to share.

However, this happened very inconsistently throughout the country. While places like New York and Chicago became more and more crowded and therefore collectivist, places like the south and west remained spread out and adamantly individualist. On the national stage, the two sides collided, often not quite understanding why. When Franklin Roosevelt became President of the U.S. the tide shifted sharply toward collectivism. This was seen (wrongfully so according to many historians) largely as a response to the excesses of individualism, which were blamed for The Great Depression and WWII. Ironically, individualism had grown in America due to the extraordinarily heavy handed collectivism of Europe.

Although there may be some truth to arguments for and against the strict Constitutional approach, it is more true that both approaches have virtues and vices. Individualism can break down order in a crowded environment. However, collectivism becomes arbitrary, invasive and completely unnecessary when implemented against people who choose to avoid the crowds and heavy handed government. Both can be abused for evil purposes.

Where We Are Today
So that brings us to the question of where we are today. The answer is that the U.S. has become a hybrid system. The federal government has cherry picked certain parts of civil rights law that it simply did not like and destroyed them. This has given rise to the "strict scrutiny" vs. "rational basis" distinction at the Supreme Court. One particularly notable example is that of the right to contract and the right to private property – originally seen as fundamental and indispensable pieces to American constitutional law. Both were destroyed by the collectivist notion in Washington D.C. that we all should share a piece of other people’s property rights.

Some pieces of the Constitution do remain intact, such as the first amendment right to free speech, which remains probably more vibrant than ever. Also, the Constitution has been used to protect the rights of minorities more than ever before, which it was philosophically intended to do. For the most part, at least the government has protected that which it itself has found to be important.

The real problem with this hybrid system is the pretentiousness with which the government gives lip-service to the law. Even people who show utter contempt for the Constitution, like President George W. Bush, actually evoke it on occasion. For example, President Bush issued a signing statement with the McCain-Feingold Bill that he signed into law, in which he explained that he questioned the constitutionality of the newly made law. I found this somewhat ironic, considering the fact that the President publicly solemnly swore to God that he would “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

My Prediction
In America we have seen both extremes prevail. That leads to the point of this essay – that individualism is once again on the rise. The rise will continue due to the increasing crisis of 20th century collectivism, and the new technology needed to spur individual activity. Distrust and disgust will rise precipitously as politicians continue to extend the audacity with which they infringe on people’s rights.

Progressively, we will see the failures of 20th century American collectivism. The U.S. Comptroller General has recently toured the country, alerting Americans that Medicare, Medicaid, public education, social security are already bankrupt and failing, and paying their bills with credit. The baby boomers will not receive what they were promised and what they paid for. During this crisis, Americans will have nothing but utter disgust for these programs which barely lasted a couple generations. The failure of the false promises of government mandated retirement, health care and education will remind people that politicians are, well...political. They made those promises and created these programs for political advantages – not because they were benevolent caretakers for the citizenry.

On the other hand, more and more Americans, especially young ones, are invested in their own well-being and independence. Americans are more independent than ever. In fact, the Marx’s dichotomy of “owners vs. workers” is mostly irrelevant because so many workers today are stockholders as well. Small business and entrepreneurship is sharply on the rise. Rarely do young people today expect to remain with one company throughout their career – rather, having seen their own parents screwed over by their bureaucratic masters, they leverage their talents to seek better opportunity. The most fun part of this rise, was the popularity of Congressman Ron Paul last year – the first politician since Ronald Reagan to remind us of what it means to be free. Even Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton, despite their collectivist pandering, have been careful to remember to affirm their belief in personal responsibility.

Technology through industrialization led to the collectivist world of the 20th century - but now another wave of technology is taking us into the individualist movement which I now predict. The internet, cell phones, modern transportation and infrastructure are making it progressively easier to operate on one’s own. Modern financing and banking and open competition is making it more and more feasible for anyone to finance their ideas. Transportation is making it easier to live in suburbs and small towns rather than cities (although, this area may need further innovation to counter gas prices). We have seen the mass exodus of people from cities to suburbs and small towns, and from physical buildings to virtual websites. Although collectivist law remains which hampers this activity, it will soon be overturned or ignored, just as individualist laws were during industrialization. Possibly the plain language and indisputable intent of U.S. Constitutional law might even be reinstated.

One of the misunderstandings that might be associated with this prediction, is that individualists would like the U.S. to return to the legal state it was in before 1937. This is not true. The Constitution may have been overruled by the government during this era, but it was in response to the abuse it had received up till that point. The U.S. should address those abuses as it moves into this new individualist era, retain the collectivist virtues which it has discovered in recent years but completely abandon it’s failed aspects. Our society should always look to the future, not the past.

The Debate
The philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon proudly exclaimed, “Property is theft!” This attitude was prevalent in the early 20th century, as industrialization brought about vast wealth and accomplishment among some individuals. Simultaneously, individualism saw abuses which undermined the real meaning of the idea.

The great philosopher and economist Adam Smith more accurately wrote that, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” Self interest contrasts “selfishness” in that the self-interested do not seek gain at other people’s expense. As new opportunities arise and new tools make it more feasible, this kind of mutual, cooperative self interest will drive human-kind to higher accomplishments – so that Adam Smith’s famous words could be restated to say, “It is not from the benevolence of the internet provider, the computer manufacturer, or the web-site designer that we expect a library at our fingertips...” This phenomenon will also bring about a whole new generation of Americans who will want to protect the freedom of activity which brought about those accomplishments, and the right to the fruits of one’s own labor which motivated them.

The collectivists will not go without a fight. “Private property” is defined as a bundle of rights in something. And those citizen’s rights, privileges and immunities must once again be seen as equal in importance as the government’s – across the board, rather than selectively. However, a good example of the lingering effects of collectivism is the recent emergence of laws which reduce these rights, based on collectivist mind sets.

A good example is public-smoking laws. Most people who do not smoke find cigarette smoking offensive, as evidenced by the fact that these laws have come into place in most states by popular vote.[2] However, the idea of the government forbidding such activity on private property is repugnant to the idea of private property itself. The right of a person to smoke on his own property is part of that bundle of rights of private property, and under individualists thinking, would never have been forcibly stripped of the owner by vote of 51% or 99% of the society. Furthermore, the ridiculous, unintended consequences of these laws reveals itself frequently.

Another example is in 2004 when the Supreme Court handed down the Kelo decision, when the Supreme Court attempted to abolish private property in land in the U.S. The fifth amendment to the Constitution could not be more clear on how eminent domain works in the U.S., but our own Supreme Court ruled against the plain and clear language and history of the law. I cannot speculate to their motives, as even self acclaimed “originalist” Antonin Scalia voted with the majority. This ruling spills over from collectivism into pure elitism because it embraces the concept that government officials are better suited to decide on how land will be used than the people who actually own it. Luckily, individual states have largely cut back this ruling, which even many socialists have found revolting.

Beyond Collectivism
As part of this rising movement of individualism, we must reinstate private property in America. When you work for something, you should be able to have your entire bundle of rights, and pass it on to your heirs if you choose. As people begin coming more an more independent, that independence must receive vigorous protection. This is necessary to bring about the accomplishments spoken of before by Adam Smith – restrictive laws destroy any ability to innovate and assaulting private property undermines one’s faith that he or she will benefit materially from any accomplishment. Not to mention the extraordinary underlying moral wrong involved.

A business should be able to market itself as a place where people can smoke if they want to – and if people don’t like it they should go somewhere else, rather than collecting together and holding a vote as to what an individual can do on his own property that he or she purchased with the fruits of their own labor. As long as these laws remain on the books, we will never see specialty smoking bars or better ventilation or ideas nobody has yet thought of. When government officials want to build shopping malls and condos, they should have to buy out the landowners like everybody else. This is a moral issue for obvious reasons, but it is also a practical one, as no society can be productive which does not protect private property, because there is no incentive to work (besides benevolence) because one cannot truly buy anything.

In this new world we are entering into, we should find renewed enthusiasm for individualism. It is a wonderful way of thinking which has mountains of philosophy, social science research, and tradition behind it. The U.S. Constitution may be practically inoperative today, but this incredible document embedded these ideas, whether the Supreme Court upholds them or not.

The collectivists parts of the country should be free to retain any features of collectivism they choose for themselves alone, in keeping with the federalist nature of the Constitution – especially considering that, despite urban flight, these areas remain very crowded and still have attitudes brought about by incessant sharing. However, the new generation of Americans should not be so foolish as to make the same mistakes as our predecessors. We can retain both the virtues of individualism and collectivism.

As individualism returns, there will be those who abuse it and there will be excesses – just like there was when it was first popular. The important thing is that people have a choice. Collectivists of all stripes must realize that taking their views to an extreme hampers the kind of private activity which leads to truly charitable and good results for all people. The truly foolish people are not the ones who believe the government should act a charity, but those who would force the rest of us to see it that way. Individualist must realize that they cant do everything on their own, and that some people truly are disadvantaged, such that giving them additional protection will allow them to start acting in their own self interest.

[1] Granted, at the time this meant only those with the privileges and immunities of Englishmen, but this concept was extended later to all individuals.

[2] Often there is an argument that second hand smoke in public places is a health issue, and that smoking should be forbidden because it hurts the health of surrounding people. Although it certainly is not good for you, this argument is so ridiculous from a public policy standpoint because of the enormous can of worms that it opens, that I have purposely chosen not to address it, to prevent myself from inadvertently dignifying it.

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