Is Libertarianism Individualistic?
One of the most common criticisms of libertarianism from conservatives and progressives alike goes something like this: “Libertarians want a world where everyone is reduced to an atomized, ‘free-thinking’ individual competing ruthlessly with other individuals in the marketplace in Social Darwinistic fashion, with no institutional loyalties or connections to anything beyond themselves. To the libertarian (envisioned by many as a fedora-tipping, neckbearded, militant atheist, anti-social hipster), neither family, community, nor church should have any role in society, as these are ‘authoritarian’ and ‘collectivistic’ institutions that violate the sacred libertarian tenet of individualism.” This “rugged individualism,” as the critics say, is the backbone of libertarian ideology.
But is this truly the case? One certainly might think so from talking with certain libertarians. Anyone who has been in libertarian groups for some time has almost certainly seen “collectivist,” “authoritarian,” or “statist” used as an insult against those who either (a) advocate for culturally conservative values (even without implying support for state enforcement of those values) or (b) make some kind of generalized statement about a particular demographic. They will claim, for instance, that the alt-righters who point out disparities in average IQs between different racial groups are exactly the same “collectivists” as the social justice warriors who demand that whites pay reparations to blacks for slavery and Jim Crow laws. Or they will claim that the anti-feminists who point out differences in behavioral tendencies between the sexes are guilty of the same offense as the feminists who rail against the “patriarchy” and demand all sorts of special legal protections and privileges for women to overthrow said “patriarchy.”
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of this obsession with individualism within libertarian circles can be seen in the outraged responses to Jeff Deist’s recent speech at Mises University from people such as Steve Horwitz, Roderick Long, Nicholas Sarwark, and many others. They condemned the speech as a Nazi dog-whistle, citing Deist’s reference to “blood and soil” and viewed it in general as an attempt to push libertarianism toward the alt-right. Assumed in all this, of course, is that Deist’s arguments in favor of embracing the traditional “institutions of civil society” and encouraging the formation of “organic nations” as described by Rothbard himself are inherently “collectivist” and therefore unlibertarian.
Plenty of excellent responses have already been written defending Deist and his speech from these attacks (here, here, and here, for starters), so I will not attempt to rehash all their points. Instead, I will take the opportunity here to focus on the broader issue that this controversy reveals, which is the role of individualism in libertarian thought, and specifically whether all forms of “collectivism” are antithetical to liberty, as is often claimed.
Definitions and Distinctions
Any discussion of libertarian theory is meaningless unless the definition of libertarianism itself is clearly established. Drawing from the Austro-libertarian tradition of Mises, Rothbard, and Hoppe, I will define libertarianism here as the affirmation of absolute private property rights and the consistent application of the non-aggression principle. Libertarians support the self-ownership of one’s body and the private ownership of goods in general (e.g. land, the means of production, other scarce resources etc.) and believe that the only just ways to acquire property are through original appropriation or voluntary transfer. The non-aggression principle can be summarized as the belief that all initiations of physical interference with the persons or property of other or threats thereof are criminal or unjustified. As such, one may justly respond to such aggression via force for either the ends of defense or punishment.
So given this definition, is libertarianism individualistic? And if so, in what sense? It is certainly individualistic in that it affirms the individual right to justly acquire private property and exercise exclusive control over it. If one adheres to the Austro-libertarian tradition, one also recognizes the praxeological truths that only individuals can act or think and that any sort of “group” action must be understood in terms of individual actions (more on this here). One might also add, based on this, that only individuals can bear moral responsibility. These axioms, when taken together, form what is referred to as “methodological individualism.” This is the libertarian individualism of Mises, Rothbard, and Hoppe.
Then there is “lifestyle individualism.” This is the type of individualism which is most often attacked by critics of libertarianism as I explained previously. They will use slogans like “no man is an island” as if it were an actual argument against libertarian philosophy, believing that libertarianism is about “self-sufficiency” and living off the grid. Now, to be sure, there are some self-described libertarians who advocate for this kind of lifestyle, but does the definition of libertarianism as explained above imply that such a lifestyle is inherently libertarian? Not at all. Neither private property norms nor the non-aggression principle require that one live a “self-sufficient” life in isolation from the rest of society, but only that any transactions that one engages in with other people are voluntary. So we can see that appeals to the importance of community and family in no way constitute an argument against libertarian theory itself, although they might function as a legitimate criticism of certain libertarians who do not value these things.
Somewhat related to “lifestyle individualism” is cultural individualism. This is the kind of individualism which is often appealed to by left-libertarians in support of feminism, multiculturalism, counterculture, and other leftist social causes. An example of this can be found here in a recent article posted by the (increasingly left-leaning) Cato Institute. According to this view, cultural and social norms such as gender roles and the nuclear family are “collectivist” and “oppressive” towards the individual and should be overturned. Only when people have been “liberated” from these norms and become rational, free-thinking individuals will we have a true libertarian society, they say. Furthermore, it is often claimed that making generalized statements about particular demographic groups, and especially making decisions based on such observations, is “collectivist” and therefore unlibertarian. Culture and race do not exist, supposedly, as these are “collectivist” concepts that put people into – gasp! – groups. Hence, the desire for cultural homogeneity and cultural preservation is then seen as an affront to this sacred “individualism,” which prompts many left-libertarians to reactively support cultural heterogeneity and cultural erosion instead (that is, at least when it comes to traditional Western European and Christian cultures).
Individualism and Libertarianism
But as Jeff Deist noted in his speech, such a worldview is not based on libertarianism as defined by private property rights and non-aggression, but on nihilism. Nothing about actual libertarian principles requires that one reject traditional culture or that one refrain from making generalized statements about groups of people. After all, no one who compares the average height of Asians to whites intends to say that all Asians are shorter than all whites. And no one who compares the physical strength of men to women intends to say that all men are stronger than all women. Of course there are exceptions to generalized statements. Yet the most common retort to these observations is pointing out exceptions to them as if the observer is making an absolute statement. This is the result of lazy and imprecise thinking which has no place in meaningful discourse. In fact, the very purpose of methodological individualism as employed by libertarian theorists and Austrian economists is to facilitate rational thought, not to impede it by rejecting data-based inductive reasoning and analysis of group trends. Walter Block recounts a story told by Walter Williams in this article:
You go to a college campus. You’re to select one student who can dunk a basketball, and another who can solve a quadratic equation. If you succeed you are paid $1000 for each success, and the two students who fill each of these bills receive the same amount of money. Who do you choose. You cannot ask any students if they have the requisite skills. You cannot go to the university math lab or to its recreational center. You must choose based solely on student appearance, as they walk by on the quad.
If you are a mental midget and want to exclude group think, collectivism, common sense, induction, you may only choose at random. But if you have even the slightest scintilla of rationality, if you are not a recent immigrant from Mars with no experience of earthlings whatsoever, you will choose a black kid for the basketball dunk and an Oriental kid with glasses as thick as the bottoms of coke bottles for the math test. If so, you will be relying on induction, on experience, on group think, on collectivism, on the scientific method, all of which is looked upon with horror by certain so called “libertarians.” If this is libertarianism, I want no part of it.
Block expands on this point further on, demonstrating the performative contradiction that libertarians engage in when they condemn group statements as “unlibertarian”:
One last point. Here is a reductio ad absurdum of opposition to collectivism, categorization, groupthink, etc., at least when offered by a libertarian. Libertarianism is itself a category, a collective. We libertarians as a group are distinct from liberals, conservatives, fascists, communists, communalists and other animals in the political menagerie. But it shares with all of them the fact that we and they are all groups.
So one can see that if we take this kind of “individualism” to its logical conclusion, we end up with an absurd and unworkable worldview that effectively prohibits any kind of inductive reasoning. It also makes any kind of conversation on society, culture, or politics virtually impossible by prohibiting all categorizations of people and group labels. It is worth noting here that categorizations and labels are typically not even used in opposition to methodological individualism, but simply to provide convenient reference points for ease of discussion. If, for instance, I wish to condemn the US government for its taxation, do I need to always specify the particular individuals in the IRS, the Congressmen who advocate for these taxes, and the Americans who vote for them as the moral culprits? Technically speaking of course, it is these individuals who are responsible for taxation and not any sort of amorphous entity, but for the sake of convenience, I (along with most other libertarians) refer simply to the US government as the source of this evil. The same goes for whenever one wishes to condemn a US bomb attack – while it is specifically the bomber pilot, the commander who gave him his orders, and the politicians who brought about the war who are responsible for the deaths caused by the bombs, it is much more convenient to simply refer to the US military as the source of these atrocities while at the same time recognizing the individual actions which contributed to them.
No, the purpose of methodological individualism is not to give libertarian purity-spiralers a tool with which to nitpick the “collectivist” statements of other libertarians. Its original purpose as used by Mises and the other great Austrian economists of his time was to provide a rational framework for economic analysis which views the economy through the lens of individual market actors with their own unique motives and decision-making factors. This framework is contrasted with that of other schools of economic thought which employ sophisticated mathematical models and idealistic assumptions about “equilibrium” conditions to analyze economic activity. As the Austrians have pointed out, these models often fail to take actual human behavior into account and result in the “Nirvana fallacy” which gives rise to the “market failure” myth. The purpose of methodological individualism, therefore, is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not involve advocating for “self-sufficient,” isolated lifestyles. It does not imply that social and cultural norms should be overturned. And it does not require one to condemn any and all references to groups as “collectivist.” It is simply an analytical framework which helps us to understand how markets work.
The Case for Austro-Libertarianism
This confusion over individualism and libertarianism is largely why I am increasingly realizing the value of a rigorous understanding of economics in libertarian thought. One might notice that the various libertarian organizations affiliated with the Austro-libertarian tradition (i.e. the Mises Institute and the Lew Rockwell Column) tend to exhibit more sympathetic attitudes toward cultural conservatism and traditionalism than many “Beltway libertarian” organizations such as the Cato Institute, Reason Magazine, the Niskanen Center, and the Libertarian Party which do not adhere to Austro-libertarianism. I suspect this is because, as adherents of Austrian economic theory, they actually make the correct distinction between methodological individualism and cultural or “lifestyle” individualism which are often conflated in other libertarian circles. Thus, they correctly recognize that libertarianism is not inherently countercultural, multicultural, or even “anti-racist” as left-libertarians assert, but on the other hand is perfectly compatible with culturally conservative mores such as family values, Christianity, and traditional Western culture.
This clarity and nuance of thought, unfortunately, is rarely seen among “Beltway libertarians” who like to think of libertarianism as “fiscally conservative” and “socially liberal.” And by “socially liberal,” of course, what they really mean is “culturally leftist,” which explains why these “libertarians” are willing to support such blatantly illiberal policies such as anti-discrimination laws when they fit the cultural progressive agenda. The thinking, of course, is that discrimination is “anti-individualistic” since discriminators supposedly fail to judge people as individuals. But aside from the fact that anti-discrimination laws violate private property rights, the other problem with this position is that methodological individualism has nothing to do with being “non-judgmental” or being tolerant of all kinds of people or lifestyles. One can certainly have ethnic or cultural biases in choosing who one associates with while at the same time recognizing the individual nature of private property rights, the individual nature of human action, and the individual nature of moral responsibility. To one who has studied Austrian economic theory, of course, this is patently obvious.
Understanding Austrian economics does not automatically make one a libertarian, and being a libertarian does not require one to adhere to Austrian economic theory. All libertarianism requires is the affirmation of private property rights and the non-aggression principle. Strictly speaking, these are purely ethical principles that do not require knowledge of economic theory for one to affirm. Yet something about the emphasis of Austrian economics on rigorous a priori reasoning and deductive logic causes libertarians who adhere to this school of thought to be better thinkers not only in economic theory, but in political and social theory as well. This is why the Austro-libertarians at the Mises Institute have stood strong against the allure of left-libertarianism for thirty-five years, while the Beltway libertarians of the Cato Institute are slowly but surely becoming a sad demonstration of O’Sullivan’s Law.
In my previous article I made the case for making libertarianism right-wing again. Perhaps it is also time to make libertarianism Austrian again.