Individualism On The Shoulders Of Giants


Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” shows a society in which the collective rules supreme.  In fact, the culture described in the book is at the point that individuals only know how to refer to themselves in the plural rather than singular (“we” instead of  “I”).  One of the main themes of the novella is that, if we forsake our egos and individual natures to collectivism, then society is doomed to regress, or at the very least, become stagnant.

Libertarians echo Rand’s value of individualism and individual rights.  This can be seen in their views on government taxation, regulations, and laws that, to them, violate privacy.  They see taxation as a form of coercion, regulations as inhibitive to economic growth, as well as restrictive to what individuals may choose.

The war on drugs may be seen as an example of regulation that infringes upon the right of an individual to choose what they do to their body. It can also be seen as inhibitory to economic growth as it restricts companies from having the freedom to process certain materials that are in demand, as well as forcing more taxes to pay for the jailing of non-violent criminals under current drug laws.

It’s not just Libertarians who hold up individualism on a golden platter.  I know many people of many different walks of life who all pay lip service to the sovereignty of individuals and stand behind the ideals of individual liberty.  Like many, I demonize collectivistic ideals that bastardize my liberty by forcing me to give up my hard earned cash for someone I will never meet or care about.  However, I am starting to see that there really is no such thing as true individual liberty, except maybe if someone is a hermit.  At the end of the day, individualism vs collectivism is yet another false dichotomy.

I have come to realize that the world I live in is built upon the shoulders of giants.  The combined effort of each individual in the collective has not resulted in the regression, or stagnation, of the species. All of the knowledge, infrastructure, and culture in this world are the result of billions of people working together. The human species is a vast super organism, except that, unlike ants or bees, there is no queen.  Each human being is a specialized cell that contributes to the whole beast.  None of the things I currently enjoy – such as this computer I’m using to write this – would’ve been possible on my own. Think about it.

Have you ever built a computer by harvesting the raw materials, building the components by hand, writing all of your own software, and then powered it with your own hand made power source?  Did you learn how to do it without studying somebody else’s work?

However, I do not embrace the collectivist ideals like socialism or communism, but our modern world would not be possible without some kind of cooperation or collective collaboration.  So, how can one achieve individual liberty without leaving the modern world to become a hermit?  Is there room for true individualism in our modern world?

Sometimes it seems that there are varying degrees of individual liberty depending the social strata we live in.  Some people have more options, depending on money and/or influence.  However, I have to point back to my previous posts to demonstrate that even the super wealthy have to answer to people.  Even they have responsibilities to maintain their status, such as taking care of employees, clients, and obeying laws among other things.

Our society is an intricately woven fabric in which each thread lends itself to integrity of the whole. Even a hermit might find himself as a frayed thread hanging on the ragged edge of society.

Each and every one of us has been brought up in a societ with certain standards that our society deems acceptable. Before we are born, that society has decided the acceptable spectrum of what we will believe, what we’ll learn, how we’ll think, and how we’ll behave. And we quickly learn that when we deviate too much beyond what’s acceptable, we suffer the consequences.

Some obvious examples are imprisonment for breaking the laws or being ostracized from a religious group for breaking the rules of its holy texts.  Some taboos are both secular and religious, such as murder and stealing. Other taboos might be less universal, such as a religious group that frowns upon drinking and gambling.

Because nobody grows up in a vacuum, there is no initial way we can choose to avoid our programming.  It would seem like we must all continue to build on this foundation or perish.  As long as I wish to partake in the safety, education, conveniences, learning, and psychological goods that society has to offer, I have no choice except to participate in society to some degree.  Typically, if I desire the ingredients to make chili, I have to buy them from the grocery store. This requires money. I have to work to get money. If I steal the money, my using it still validates the money, as well as the society that generated it. If I want to understand history, I have to read books written by others knowledgeable about it.

Is there any way to actually have any true individual liberty when everyone is so hopelessly entangled.

I think that while nobody is a true individual in our world, there are ways to have varying degrees of liberty.  I believe one of the first steps is to look at every aspect of your life through a consequential lens, which requires the ability to view any situation in terms of possible consequences rather than bound by abstractions such as laws and morals.  Recognize abstractions for what they are and then weigh out all possible consequences for adhering to or breaking them.

One example of the kind of consequences I’m talking about would be this: If there is something you desire, it’s necessary to determine what it will take to get it. Assume you are hungry and need food. Look at the various factors involved in obtaining food. Do you have the means of growing and storing food all by yourself?  Do you have money so you can get food from others?  Does someone you know have food?  What will happen if you steal this food?  Is foraging an option?

Whatever it is you want in life, recognize the rules and consequences society has placed around it.  These include human laws, physical laws, and societal conventions.  Attempting to break any of these will have a set of potential consequences depending on the circumstances.  Breaking the law might land you in jail (don’t report your stolen weed to the police if you don’t live in Washington or Colorado). Trying to break the laws of physics might leave you severely hurt (if you jump off a building, gravity will probably win).  Pissing certain people off isn’t always the best idea (telling your boss you’re a Satanist might not have the effect you want on your next review).

Nobody can always do what he or she wants, such as shooting up heroin while naked in a hot air balloon above the Vatican, but, obviously, there are ways to make some things happen without undesirable negative consequences.  There are ways around the rules to approach individual liberty, but, as I said earlier, it requires seeing things through a consequential lens.

In a future post I will go into more detail about how someone might exercise some level of individual liberty using a hypothetical example.

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