Libertarianism frequently exalts the individual, but markets operate by orchestrating collective efforts to realize gains only possible through cooperation.
If I were to go looking for tensions in the libertarian and classical liberal canon, I know just where I’d start.
There is, first, a strong tendency in our intellectual tradition toward individualism. Our tendency toward individualism shows both in our social science methodology and, more importantly, in our ethics.
With good reason we claim Max Stirner as an ancestor, even if he is our crazy uncle. And that supreme individualist, Ayn Rand? She’s more like our mom. Here’s a bit of what she had to say in the voice of John Galt:
Just as I support my life, neither by robbery nor alms, but by my own effort, so I do not seek to derive my happiness from the injury or the favor of others, but earn it by my own achievement. Just as I do not consider the pleasure of others as the goal of my life, so I do not consider my pleasure as the goal of the lives of others…
I seek or desire nothing from [other men] except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary self‐interest, when they see that my interest coincides with theirs. When they don’t, I enter no relationship… The only value men can offer me is the work of their mind.
A major theme of the speech as I understand it is that there are essentially two ways to live: One may live either through one’s own efforts or through the efforts of others. But only the former, the individualist method, is proper. The latter method – which Rand provocatively terms mysticism – isn’t a viable choice for a society in the long term. Nor can it yield a well‐lived or happy life for the individual. For such a life you need individualism.
All that’s on the one hand.
On the other hand, though, there is within the classical liberal tradition, and to a lesser extent in modern libertarianism, a strong appeal to the interests and the peculiar power of the voluntary community. In the classical liberal canon we find repeated protests, with much justice, that the word “community” has been stolen by those who would use it to refer only to non‐voluntary things. And there are praises, in Bastiat, Tocqueville, Spencer, and elsewhere, of the greatness of community – if and only if community means the product of the free choice of all involved.
With this appeal to community comes the suggestion that individualism is to some degree self‐defeating: Things may go best for an individual only when he voluntarily puts aside or tempers what seem to be his self‐interests more narrowly considered. We can’t have the modern world, and all of its conveniences and wonders, without a degree of social cooperation, sometimes without our personal ability to comprehend why things are the way they are. Indeed, this is what Hayekian rule‐following is all about: We follow social rules not because we expect them to be directly beneficial to us on all occasions, but because life within an orderly society is the best prospect that we can reasonably demand.
As a result, the market order offers a level of communal coordination that other social systems can only envy. (Communism, that would be you.) And we who live in more or less market‐oriented societies reap enormous benefits when compared to the alternatives.
If Ayn Rand is in one corner, let’s put Leonard Read in the other. Here speaks the eponymous pencil of his famous essay “I, Pencil.” After recounting the complex history of his own manufacture, the pencil says:
[M]illions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others…There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know‐how. From the standpoint of know‐how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know‐how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field—paraffin being a by‐product of petroleum.
Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know‐how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.
There is a fact still more astounding: the absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Hand at work…
Not even the president of the company knows how to make me, says the plucky little pencil. No one person anywhere on earth can say that the pencil is his own achievement. No one can claim the pencil’s whole value as his own. Perhaps no one can even understand the pencil’s creation.
Pencils are products of a complex process of trade. Or, as we might say today, pencils are the products of globalization. Which is an excellent thing, even if it’s undeniably a communal one.
“Perhaps no one person could make or even understand a pencil,” an Objectivist might say, “but that doesn’t bother me at all. As John Galt also said, trade is a fully proper relationship between human beings. Indeed, it is the only proper relationship between them. Traders give value for value, and the result may be some very complex products. But there’s no foul whatsoever here.”
There may be no foul. But there are at least two big questions that seem unanswered. First, if we earn our keep through our own efforts, how do we come to deserve a share in the surplus value that comes about through trade? And second, if pencils are a communal effort, where did John Galt go?
The first question is trickier than it looks. An Objectivist would seem to demand that all people live by their own effort. And yet every time I pick up a pencil, I obtain a value that actually far exceeds the proportional share of the effort expended by all those people who worked so hard to make it. Pencils have a value not just because people (some of them geniuses) have worked on them, but because the communal work was well‐coordinated by means of price signals.
How do we come to deserve that surplus value? This isn’t a small question; in a world of global trade and greatly specialized labor, it seems likely that the vast majority of the value we might derive from consumer purchases is the product of gains from trade, not the product of labor or even of intellect. (Much like this essay, the products of intellect are most often simply given away for free.) And many of these gains were from trades that we know nothing about and had absolutely nothing to do with.
Asserting that traders give value for value only begs the question: How did our trading partners come to deserve the values that they bestowed upon us? We find ourselves no closer to the answer, if we are strictly individualists. A classical liberal in the communitarian vein might say that all these gains from trade are things we can potentially come to deserve through participation in voluntary communal institutions such as markets. This seems a significant point in favor of the latter approach.
But also: Where did John Galt go? This question seems poorly answered by the reply that trade is a virtuous activity, a reply that in context seems to miss the heroic character of the Randian hero entirely, and miss also the fact that we may be able to do okay without him, if we all coordinate through the market.
None of this is to say that individual geniuses don’t exist. Clearly some do, and clearly the rest of us are better for their having lived. And the act of trade, which brings us so many coordinated advantages, must be intelligently pursued as well: a rich field for the exercise of reason, and potentially a heroic one.
Consider that the usual heroic man, the sort who existed before Ayn Rand wrote, was much more often a statesman than a businessman. And the former was only quite rarely great. In politics, the will to power is commonly the will to destruction. But the will to power in the market gives millions of people… consumer goods. In a well‐conducted market order, a great man is only great insofar as he is productive, rather than destructive. And even if he is only a cog in a vast, globalized business, at least he is probably doing no harm. One might also say that the question of fame hardly enters into it, as Rand would readily agree, and a great man of this sort may even be completely anonymous. (Who even invented the pencil eraser, anyway? We could look that one up. Not so with Bitcoin.)
Finally, weighty reasons may exist in either case that favor a classical liberal or a libertarian politics. But a tension remains: Do we want that type of politics for heroic‐individualist reasons, or for the relatively boring communal‐process reasons? Or – just maybe – is John Galt not an individual at all, but a sort of symbol for the latter? If so, the tension between certain strains of individualist thought and classical liberal communalism may be only apparent.