What do I mean by the modern individual?

Since this topic has generated some puzzlement, let me expand upon it.

First of all, consider the Middle Ages: Of course, people then still acted, and still made choices. But what sort of choices? If one was a peasant, one did not even really contemplate being something other than a peasant. (This began to change with the reemergence of cities, which is part of the transition to the modern era.) If my father was a peasant, I was going to be a peasant as well. I was going to do subsistence farming, and turn a certain portion of my crop over to the Lord of the Manor. I was going to marry another peasant, and we would have as many kids as we were able to. I would be a Catholic, I would observe all the usual holidays, and the goods I had would be those goods that other peasants had as well. The choices I did make would be along the lines of, "Should I flavor tonight's dinner with an onion, or with some garlic?"

Although if I were born into the nobility, although my choices would be a bit wider, they would not be very much wider at all. If I was the first son of a duke, I was going to become a duke, and I would live the way other dukes lived. My choices would be along the lines of "Shall I fight with Duke A, or with Duke B?" If I was the second son, I had a little more flexibility: I might become a bishop or an officer in the army.

Of course, in every time and place, there have been rare people who rose above the common condition. In the Middle Ages, St. Francis would be such an exception: Against his family's wishes, he went and became a monk. Bob offered the example of Lao Tsu in ancient China. Buddha would be another good example. But we know the names of these people precisely because their individuality was so exceptional in their time.

And why was it when cities began to re-emerge in the Middle Ages that it was said that "city air makes one free"? It was precisely because in these places, we were starting to see the emergence of modern states, whose residents were not feudal subjects with a precise place in the Great Chain of Being, but citizens, whose freedom to choose their role in the city was increasingly protected by its political order.

Now let us consider a modern individual. I will use the example of Deirdre McCloskey, simply because she came to mind, and I know something of her story. Donald McCloskey was a fairly successful economist, married, with two children, who one day made a choice: he would leave his family, and become a woman.

Of course, this was technologically impossible in the Middle Ages. But let us say we approached people in that time, and told them that we knew of a witch who could affect such a transformation. Almost without exception, those people would've been horrified with the possibility: they were born with the sex they had because that is what God had chosen for them, and it would have been seen as a demonic violation of his sovereignty to change this fact. And if there had been such a witch, and someone had employed her services, the chance that he would survive the transformation would be very small: The society around him would have completely shunned him, and unless he could survive on his own in the wild, he would likely die.

Of course, even today, not everyone alive is thrilled with someone making a choice like McCloskey's. But the state has gradually broken down the ability of other social groupings to effectively banish such a person to the wilderness. A landlord today is not allowed to deny McCloskey housing because of her choice to become a woman. A grocer is forbidden from denying McCloskey access to food, as long as she can pay. Her employer is forbidden from firing her for undergoing her transformation (except for rare cases, for instance, if she had been working as a male stripper). To expand on this example, consider the modern attitude towards having children: children are a "choice," and the modern woman may decide something like, "I will get my career going, and wait until I am 40 to have a kid." And if the child then conceived turns out to have Down's Syndrome, the modern woman may choose to abort her, similar to returning a defective product. Such choices concerning childbearing would have been inconceivable in the Middle Ages for almost all people.

This, then, is the modern libertarian individual, and this is how such an individual has been "created" by the state. (Of course, this process has been one of mutual determination: The modern state has been to a large extent the product of such individuals.)

Another thing I should clarify: in discussing this topic, the notion of "atomic individualism" has arisen. Commenter KP asked "Do you mean atomic individuals free of all social connections?"

But this is a misunderstanding of what intelligent critics of "atomic individualism" are targeting. Let us look at the metaphor: Atoms are not "free" of all connections to other atoms! There are many many other atoms that an atom of hydrogen might connect with. But in the atomic model, none of these connections are essential to the being of the hydrogen atom. It is what it is already, all on its own, whether it winds up connected with an oxygen atom or a carbon atom. (Whitehead, for instance, has denied that physical atoms are really like this, but that is beside the point here: this is the model being discussed.) Those who criticize "atomic individualists" realize that they acknowledge the ubiquity of social connections. The point under contention is that, for these critics, atomic individualists fail to realize that social relations to a great extent constitute the individual, and he would not be an individual at all outside of his social setting. If Bob Murphy had been raised by wolves, he would not be Bob Murphy simply with slightly different connections than he has today: he would not be Bob Murphy at all. (Major Freedom apparently was raised by wolves, so this does not apply to him.)

Finally, let me acknowledge that this analysis is hardly original to me: numerous thinkers, both for and against the change, have analyzed it similarly. For traditionalist Catholics, for instance, this change has been one for the worse, and they criticize the modern state for enabling it. On the other hand, someone like Michael Oakeshott, who according to his biographer was never sleeping with fewer than three women at a time throughout the 1950s, despite being married, welcomed this transition, but also acknowledged the importance of the modern state in bringing it about.

40 comments:

  1. "The point under contention is that, for these critics, atomic individualists fail to realize that social relations to a great extent constitute the individual, and he would not be an individual at all outside of his social setting. "

    A card carrying Natural Rights Libertarian could still fully agree with this statement. (Work by Horwitz, Long, and Palmer all come to mind)

    This is still far too vague (for my tastes) where exactly is the libertarian part of the "modern libertarian individual"? You could just as much call it the "modern Hobbesian individual" under this standard. (Ignore the few confessed Hobbesian libertarians please)

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    1. Horwitz, Long, and Palmer: I don't believe they fully realize the import of this view.

      Hobbesian individual: Yes! I agree, Hobbes understanding and that of most modern libertarians of the individual is the same. They just draw different conclusions from that view.

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    2. In fact, understanding Hobbes as a Proto-liberal is today a widely excepted view, and, interestingly, largely due to Oakeshott's work on Hobbes!

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    3. "In fact, understanding Hobbes as a Proto-liberal is today a widely excepted view…"

      Smith would beg to differ.

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    4. This is probably why most if not all libertarians think property creates some sort of bubble around each person and why they believe all rules can be deduced from these bubbles.

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    5. I'm curious, Gene. Whose view would you consider to be more accurate: Hobbes' or Locke's?

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    6. I'm glad we could agree that this isn't really so much about libertarianism but a broader cluster concept. I still disagree though and say that libertarianism (a la Murphy, at least) isn't even a subspecies of that. (So I might agree with Ken B here, whether it's a misunderstanding of liberalism for the better or worse though I do not care).

      Like you said, this is an old argument, versions of it have been expressed by Kirk, Taylor, Dionne, etc... and libertarians have made the same basic reply.

      The core of libertarianism isn't individualism, not does it's core even imply individualism. At best, it's a boring set of policy prescriptions that allow for it (and just about everything else).

      (I'm not sure if this went through, apologies for the possible double post)

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    7. "The core of libertarianism isn't individualism, not does it's core even imply individualism. At best, it's a boring set of policy prescriptions that allow for it (and just about everything else)."

      Except that's not what it is. All of the stuff that it "allows" for must be confined to its master rules. No bankruptcy, no marriage, no child custody, no consumer protection, no animal rights, etc.

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    8. The core of the kind of Libertarianism we are discussing is a radical (and absurd) view of rights: that all rights are property rights, are absolute, cannot conflict, and cannot be ranked.

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    9. Right. It has taken a particular set of rights that all liberals support and placed a one-sided emphasis on them.

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    10. Samson, "master rules" sure sounds and awful lot like "policy prescriptions" would you actually like to elaborate on your assertion? (As we seem to agree)

      As Ken B and Gene are saying, libertarianism is a subset of liberalism. I don't necessarily disagree, in that it's roots are definitely there. It is just that it's so narrowly focused and radically different at this point (evolved/devolved into a new species?) that to put Hobbes and Rothbard in the same tent is just a bit ridiculous. (I should have been more clear previously)

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    11. Also, I should have expected Oakeshott being brought up, however I was thinking more along the lines of Carl Schmitt's interpretation. Both seem to agree on the individualism of Hobbes at any rate.

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    12. "Samson, "master rules" sure sounds and awful lot like "policy prescriptions" would you actually like to elaborate on your assertion? (As we seem to agree)"

      "Master rules" isn't quite synonymous with "policy prescriptions". The problem with libertarianism and most libertarians is that it/they have a cartoonish/naive idea of law. The way most of them understand real world examples are usually distorted. Anarchists saying common law was "market law" or "stateless law" don't know what the hell they're talking about. An example: Walter Block is an economist, not a lawyer. He has no business propounding legal theory, let alone legal theory based on Austrian economics.

      "Enforce property rights and contracts" as a maxim is woefully inadequate and neglects entire swaths of jurisdiction: aviation law, space law, family law, privacy law, tort law, traffic law, construction law, debt protection, licensing, statute of limitations, etc. Doesn't it seem a little weird to say that property rights are the solution to pollution? It would be wholly inaccurate to say that pollution was the result of property rights not being enforced. They were, it's just that pollution wasn't an offense.

      Most libertarian legal arguments I've seen are usually just convoluted word play, like the way Jan Masek was trying to explain how debt isn't intangible. His arguments about blackmail/defamation were just fractally wrong, erroneously assuming that defamation assume property in reputation.

      "As Ken B and Gene are saying, libertarianism is a subset of liberalism. I don't necessarily disagree, in that it's roots are definitely there. It is just that it's so narrowly focused and radically different at this point (evolved/devolved into a new species?) that to put Hobbes and Rothbard in the same tent is just a bit ridiculous. (I should have been more clear previously)"

      Think of it as a mutant version of liberalism, I guess. It's based on a concept of property rights that completely out of proportion.

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    13. "Right. It has taken a particular set of rights that all liberals support and placed a one-sided emphasis on them."

      Would it then be accurate to say that it's like a mutant strain of liberalism?

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    14. Did my reply to K.P. get through?

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    15. "Samson, "master rules" sure sounds and awful lot like "policy prescriptions" would you actually like to elaborate on your assertion? (As we seem to agree)"

      Something like that. My bigger point is that "enforce property rights and contracts" is woefully inadequate as a legal maxim and ignores vast swaths of jurisdiction: aviation law, space law, bankruptcy, copyright, privacy law, traffic law, torts, marriage law, family law, etc. You can't expect the concepts of property and contract to be as expansive as you think they are. Does it really make sense to say "property rights are solution to pollution" when pollution needs to be established as a separate charge?

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    16. Your bigger point is completely irrelevant, you're itching for an argument that no one here is having. The point isn't the possibility of libertarianism. I thought I made this painfully clear.

      My point is only to clarify libertarianism from misrepresentation. To which you've ("something like that") apparently agreed to my take. This is no different from defending, say, Marxism from conservative misrepresentations. First get it right then criticize to your heart's content.

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  2. "Accepted view": Siri cannot ever seem to get that word correct.

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  3. What I am talking about is in fact the liberal understanding of the individual, of which the libertarian understanding is a sub species.

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    1. Siri is playing false again. Let me try

      Libertarian misunderstanding

      Hmm. Works for me, maybe she likes baritones.

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  4. "And why was it when cities began to re-emerge in the middle ages that it was said that 'city air makes one free'? It was precisely because in these places, we were starting to see the emergence of modern states, whose residents were not feudal subjects with a precise place in the Great Chain of Being, but citizens, whose freedom to choose their role in the city was increasingly protected by its political order."

    Are you sure that the difference is one of "no state" versus "state"? It would seem to me that the difference is rather one of traditionalism versus urbanism or something. I wouldn't say that the formation of a city is the creation of a "state" where one had not been before. How can a feudal order not count as having government? I don't get it.

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    1. Sampson, I explicitly say "the modern state." What exactly constitutes a state is a fuzzy question.

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    2. The key difference I am highlighting is considering all residents as citizens, rather then as having clearly differentiated roles according to their birth.

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    3. In what sense do you use the word "state", then? Do you use it to mean "government" or "polity"?

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    4. As I noted, "state" Has many meanings. Just consider that here I am talking about the "modern state", the State made up of universal citizenship.

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  5. Libertarians are not alone in this, however: as Gene points out, libertarianism is a subspecies of liberalism, and liberalism has increasingly characterized our political-social world over the last few hundred years. Libertarians just take further ideas that are already intimated in the common ideological background. The question is whether pushing these tendencies to the utmost is a good idea or whether slowing them down or checking them might be a better idea.

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  6. This is also the secret of libertarianism's appeal: because it just pushes further ideas that are already common to us as citizens of a liberal world, its dicta can seem perversely commonsensical, such that an ordinary person knows something is wrong but cannot articulate just what. Open borders is a good example.

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    1. Ehhhhh, I'm not so sure about that. There's nothing particular about liberalism that would even hint at the vulgar economism that's common in libertarianism. Nor is there anything in liberalism that makes contracts and property out to be so fundamental. Libertarianism's policy prescriptions don't seem to be rooted in liberalism as much as they seem to be based around incredibly strange perspectives on property and social contexts.

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    2. Samson, if you go into a room full of historians of political thought, and point out that libertarianism is a species of liberalism, they will ask why in the world you are pointing out something so obvious. This isn't a controversial point Dan and I are making: it is quite commonplace. You just have to study the history of liberalism to see it is true.

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    3. Alright, but do you at least agree that the economism and emphasis on contract isn't necessarily in all forms of liberalism?

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  7. If the modern sovereign individual is a post-Reformation evolution, then perhaps the Reformation had something to do with it. The key claim of the Reformation (that Scriptures create the Church--that what anchors the body of believers is their acceptance of the authority of Scripture) in opposition to the Catholic claim that the Church--understood as the body of believers--creates Scripture) had several consequences. One of which was to end up empowering the individual conscience, since the authority of Scripture was available to all who accepted it. Hence Protestant Churches beginning to elect clerics and having doctrine-deciding Synods with elected lay members. That seems a powerful source of notions of sovereign individuals.

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  8. "But the state has gradually broken down the ability of other social groupings to effectively banish such a person to the wilderness. A landlord today is not allowed to deny McCloskey housing because of her choice to become a woman. A grocer is forbidden from denying McCloskey access to food, as long as she can pay. Her employer is forbidden from firing her for undergoing her transformation (except for rare cases, for instance, if she had been working as a male stripper)."

    Wouldn't these be examples most libertarians are opposed to, though? And wouldn't the first instance be something that the paleoish libertarians would consider "big government"? (I don't consider it to be "big government" or solely the doing of "the state" because I think that to an extent rule enforcement can't be separated from society, i.e., an organized police force in a metropolitan district and the militia members of a small town are roughly the same in function.)

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    1. "Wouldn't these be examples most libertarians are opposed to, though?"

      What do you mean "though"? The point of these posts has been that an entity libertarians object to (the modern state) creates the libertarian individual.

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    2. Oh, well, I can see that, but I think that they would object to these examples on the grounds that they are unlibertarian examples of "social engineering". I think that would have an effect on the persuasiveness of your point for them.

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    3. But the point IS that this modern individual was a product of various bits of social engineering! (And of course, those projects were created by individuals, so it is mutual determination.)

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    4. In other words, they might say, "But Gene, that's entirely besides the point. Libertarians are not concerned about what makes the modern individual exist. We only care about the particular policies in place.".

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    5. And of course libertarians will not fancy this point.

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    6. I'm more curious as to what implications it has. Back in high school, I embraced social contract theory after reading about the Enlightenment and the Glorious Revolution. Popular sovereignty, democracy, and consent of the governed seemed to be the only principles that mattered there and the behavior of the modern individual just wasn't addressed by any of it.

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    7. You're getting there Samson! By "libertarian" Gene basically means individualist. (Of which there can certainly be overlap.)

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