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Ayn Rand, Non-Atomistic Individualism, and the Dangers of Communitarianism – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Ayn Rand, Non-Atomistic Individualism, and the Dangers of Communitarianism – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
September 8, 2012

James Joseph argues in “Ayn Rand’s Paradox” that Rand’s “defense of individual freedom provides a self-defeating apologia for the American welfare state.” Mr. Joseph’s essay takes the communitarian view that, without the bulwark of “natural community” (including “shared duties” or “natural duties and obligations” or “claims from direct community”), the individual becomes increasingly reliant on government for every benefit in life.

Yet Mr. Joseph’s analysis portrays Ayn Rand as espousing a view that no serious thinker has ever held – the canard of atomistic individualism, which is often used by communitarians against those who do not think that communities can exist as superior entities apart from and greater than the individuals who constitute them. Mr. Joseph believes that “In fact, American statism’s apologia is the individual freedom so touted by Ayn Rand, complete with her denial of the claims of the community on the individual. One need look no further than the ‘Life of Julia’ campaign  to see that American statism is built around the idea of highly independent, atomized individuals that cannot be bothered with claims from direct community.”

True individualism is far from atomistic, and Rand saw this clearly. She wrote, for instance, that “Man gains enormous values from dealing with other men; living in a human society is his proper way of life—but only on certain conditions. Man is not a lone wolf and he is not a social animal. He is a contractual animal. He has to plan his life long-range, make his own choices, and deal with other men by voluntary agreement (and he has to be able to rely on their observance of the agreements they entered).” (“A Nation’s Unity,” The Ayn Rand Letter, II, 2, 3)

But Rand also correctly saw the individual as being primary and precedent to any “community” or “society” – although the conditions of a society can certainly constrain or empower an individual. In response to the questions “Is man a social animal?” and “Can he develop only in society?” Rand stated: “Man does live in society, not on a desert island. But that does not mean society ‘develops’ him. The expression ‘develops in society’ implies that man is a social animal. I believe no such thing. The issue here is: What is primary in a man’s development, society or his mind? Of course, his mind has primacy. Society cannot make or unmake him. An immoral society can mangle him and make it enormously difficult for him to develop properly psychologically. A rational society can help a man’s development a great deal. In a mixed society, the best minds and those who are strongest morally might withstand the pressure from society, whereas the average person will find it beyond his individual capacity and give up. Society cannot form a person. It cannot force him to accept ideas; but it can discourage him. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make man a social animal.” (Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A, edited by Robert Mayhew)

Rand properly recognized that individuals are not better off in insulated vacuums, apart from all other people. She acknowledged that man stands to gain greatly from interactions in society – but he can also come to great harm thereby. The question for Rand, and for all individualists, is not whether one should stand apart from society, but rather which relationships within society are most conducive to the flourishing of the individual, and which are to his detriment. Rand’s answer is that the conducive relationships are those of mutual benefit, where values are exchanged among all parties involved, and all parties seek to be better off and grant their consent to the arrangement. While Mr. Joseph thinks that, in this approach, “Ethics is collapsed into economics,” the truth is more complex and subtle. Economics describes the outcome of people’s existing value judgments (in the form of market prices, interest rates, and other phenomena) and does not directly comment on what individuals ought to value. It explains ubiquitous laws of human action that hold no matter what people happen to prefer.  Ethics, on the other hand, is directly concerned with what an individual should want to have and do – what a good life consists of and how it might be attained. Economics can inform you of the influences that result in the price of food, but it cannot tell you whether you ought to pursue food in the first place.

Rand’s Objectivist ethics arrives at the ultimate value of the individual’s life by recognizing that the very existence and meaningfulness of the idea of “value” depends on a living being that is capable of pursuing values. She writes, “The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.” (“The Objectivist Ethics” – quotation from John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged)

Unlike an individual human, a collective of any sort cannot, qua collective, breathe, eat, move, or perform any unitary action. To say that a collective can “act” is a misleading figure of speech. Such an “action” can be no more than an aggregation of the extremely disparate and individually motivated actions of a group’s members or participants. The relationships among a group’s members can be quite sophisticated, it is true, but they do not supersede – in terms of either their existence or their moral worth – the essential, indivisible, and indissoluble individualities of the participants.

That brings us to the substance of the disagreement. Mr. Joseph seems to infer that Rand’s individualism is incompatible with relationships within the family – such as the care for parents and children – or within a neighborhood – such as local mutual-aid societies or groups of volunteers. I do not see any reason why such incompatibility need be the case. The exchange of values can readily occur in these circumstances, even in the absence of formal legal contracts or direct exchanges of money. Values are far broader than money and can consist of intangible goods and services – such as friendship, intellectual improvement, esthetic enjoyment, and even love (see my essay “A Rational View of Love” for a detailed discussion). The key principle governing such relationships, to the extent that they are beneficial, is that they should be based on mutual consent as much as possible. Even in cases where full informed consent cannot be given – as with children, pets, or senile elders – consent should be sought to the extent that a living creature is capable of exercising it non-destructively, and a presumption must always exist that a dependent creature would act in a life-preserving and life-enhancing manner if it had greater knowledge and ability to do so.

A respect for the principle of consent in relationships of dependency would imply, for instance, that children should not be forced to accept styles of clothing which they detest or espouse opinions which they do not personally hold through their own conviction; that pets should not be humiliated or restrained from non-destructive inclinations; and that elders should not be infantilized and should be empowered to manage their own affairs to every extent their physical faculties (in combination with technology) permit.

What Rand detested, and what many individualists likewise abhor, is the idea of top-down or compulsory “community” – of the sort that tries to deliberately (inevitably, through the wishes of some central planner or committee thereof) herd people into artificially constructed relationships for the purpose of building “togetherness” (or some comparably disingenuous justification). Compulsory national “service” – be it military or civilian – is the prime example of such exploitation of individuals in order to fulfill the power ambitious of the elites creating the “communities” of cannon fodder or work drones.

Additionally, a misguided perception of the purpose of societal interactions can lead to good people being subverted and shackled by their moral lessers. A misperceived sense of the value of “community” for its own sake (apart from any values for the individuals involved) could lead to the persistence of abuse within families; the continual funding of corrupt, dysfunctional, and even perverse churches or other civic organizations due to ingrained guilt or a sense of disembodied obligation among the contributors; the tolerance of incompetent “old boys’ networks” running local governments, because they are part of the “social fabric” and a deference to tradition prevents their being supplanted by a meritocracy. This kind of perverse communitarianism is a prime example of what Rand called “the sanction of the victim” – as it cannot thrive without the endorsement and participation of the good people who create resources upon which the abusers and parasites prey.  In even worse times and places, the willingness to accept communities over and above individuals has led to thoughtless conformity about the desirability of harming individuals perceived as being “other” or “outside” of the community – persons of different skin colors, national origins, religions, peaceful lifestyles, or peaceful political persuasions.  The vicious tribalist impulse is still strong in all too many humans, and it should not be stoked.

A misguided communitarianism has already resulted in the mangling of the first two decades of most Americans’ lives in the form of compulsory “public” schooling – where academic learning takes second stage to “socializing” the students with one another, which typically means that the best of them will be mercilessly bullied by the worst, while the rest lose themselves in pointless fads and clique rivalries. The travesty of compulsory public schooling serves as a prominent demonstration that – while Mr. Joseph seeks to posit an opposition between the Leviathan and communitarianism – the two go hand-in-hand more often than not. The Leviathan often employs communitarian rhetoric while representing itself as the entity that gets to define and structure the “community” in question.

Are we dependent on other people for much of what is good in life? Certainly! But this, far from requiring a communitarian viewpoint, is actually the implication of a consistent individualism. No one person can know everything or learn to do everything. In order for each of us to maximize our well-being, we need to specialize in some activities while relegating the rest to our fellow humans – with whom we then exchange the fruits of our respective labor. In a market economy based on the principle of individualism, each of us literally depends on the efforts of millions of others to produce the goods and services we daily enjoy.  Truly sustainable economies and societies – ones that operate without degenerating into violence or mass poverty – require that we treat others with the respect needed to facilitate these ongoing transactions. With a small circle of these individuals, we are able to form even closer ties, where formal transactions are not required to maintain ongoing value-trades. In a household, for instance, it is simply more efficient to keep a rough mental picture of other participants’ contributions, rather than itemizing everything in minute detail. Furthermore, the ability to closely trust others in one’s family (provided that it is a good one, without abuse, deception, or exploitation) eliminates the need for most of the typical safeguards of commerce among strangers. Similarly, a custom of volunteer work in one’s neighborhood might result in the capture of certain “positive externalities” – such as the benefits of cleaner streets, happier (and therefore more productive and peaceful) residents, and lower rates of vandalism and other crimes.

Perhaps Ayn Rand’s individualism, properly understood, would allow for precisely the ideal sense of the “natural community” that Mr. Joseph extols – one in which individuals engage in a variety of interactions (many of them non-monetary) to mutual benefit and thereby develop strong ties. Unfortunately, in practice, the explicit idealization of the “community” has not been an effective way of achieving such an outcome. It has, indeed, resulted in the very opposite: an insidious and manipulative elite, or a conformist and prejudiced majority (often incited by that same elite), limiting the freedoms and sometimes ruining the lives of those who wish to use their rational faculties to find a better way.