The Dignity of the Individual 18:34

Boaz describes the importance of analytical and ethical individualism to libertarianism.


David Boaz: For libertarians, the basic unit of social analysis is the individual. That doesn’t mean we’re atomistic, individualist, doesn’t mean we deny the benefits of cooperation or anything like that. We just say social analysis has to start with the individual. It’s not clear what else it could be. Only individuals make choices. Only individuals can take responsibility for those choices. We do lots of things together in groups. From paying to have a sandwich made for lunch to going to church to joining a club to joining an army, all of those things involve group activity. But ultimately, in every case, individuals are making choices and individuals are responsible for the choices they make. We may worry that mob psychology comes into effect, things like that, but it remains the case that each individual makes the decision to join a mob, to engage in looting, to engage in murder, whatever, or to engage in peaceful trade. That becomes then both a methodological principle – how do we analyze the way the world works; how do we analyze the way things happen – and also a philosophical principle on the dignity of the individual.

A great part of the libertarian view of the world is the dignity of every individual, the respect that every individual is entitled to, the equal respect that every individual is entitled to. Libertarians often criticize the idea of equality, but we don’t criticize the idea of equal freedom. And this has come up a lot in debates like over gay marriage, equal freedom under law. What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he said all men are created equal? He did not mean they were equal in height or athletic ability or intellectual ability or whatever. He did mean equal in the eyes of God, equal in the eyes of the law. Now this libertarian principle is something that classical liberals developed, that comes out of the Christian understanding of the dignity of every child of God. That can certainly be found in other cultures as well. It has never been perfectly adhered to. And again, slavery was the worst example of our failure to accord equal dignity to every person. And a lot of Americans notice that after they wrote a Declaration of Independence and a constitution. And they wrote essays about the rights of the individual and tyranny. Some came to understand the real tyrant is a person who holds other people in chains, and that’s why abolitionist societies began to be formed in the United States around the time of the American Revolution and obviously continued to be active until slavery was ended in the United States.

And one of the points that the libertarian arguments about slavery made was self-ownership. Every individual is the owner of himself or herself. You see abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lysander Spooner making this argument. Every person is responsible for his own actions. Every person is responsible for his own thoughts. Every person is the owner of himself. And so when you hold a person in slavery, you are stealing from him. You are stealing himself. And one of the things that William Lloyd Garrison and the other abolitionists called slaveholders was man stealers because they were stealing men, not from God, not from other people, but from themselves. Along with the understanding that slavery was wrong in the United States – which took too long to be recognized – was a growing understanding that racism was wrong, that people should be treated not as members of a collective but as individuals.

Slavery and racism are not the same thing. There were plenty of societies that had slaves without having racist attitudes. It was just if you conquered another tribe, you’ve got to enslave them. It didn’t mean they were inferior to you. The Romans often used Greek slaves as their teachers. They didn’t think the Greeks were inferior. The Greeks just lost the war, and so they got enslaved. In the United States and much of the Western world during the period of African slavery, slavery and racism came to be associated, and the arguments against slavery and racism therefore proceeded together. The libertarian view is clearly each individual, every individual has equal rights and equal dignity, and that refutes any arguments for racist public policy for racist treatment of people.

And the same thing, obviously, is true of women’s right. Gender is not the same thing as race. It’s easier to understand why people thought men and women are different, so maybe they don’t have the same legal rights, the same legal standing. But as we progress from the 18th to 19th to the 20th century, we came to believe that men and women are not different in fundamental enough ways to have different rights. They may have different interests. Therefore, you may not see men and women proportionally represented in every part of society. But they do have equal rights. And that was a great part of the feminist movement from the early 19th century with Mary Wollstonecraft and the Grimke sisters. People who are included in my book The Libertarian Reader on up to the early 20th century to the late 20th century and even today. The argument that women should not be treated differently by government or men should not be treated differently by government.

A lot of this comes out of the notion of liberalism and the growth of commercial society, the American Revolution. Think about it. You’ve got a liberal argument from Locke and the Levellers to the American Revolution to Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, you’ve got an argument about individual rights, and each individual should be respected, and each individual should be free. And it has to occur to some people reading those things, “Well, what about black people? What about women?” You also have in the United States a newly burgeoning market commercial society. And one of the things that means is more people taking individual responsibility for their own lives. Instead of it just being that you’re a farmer because your father was a farmer, you’re a lord because your father was a lord, now it’s up to you to make your own way.

And it became more difficult to consider women to be separate from men, although for a long time, there were differences like whether women, in particular married women, could hold property, whether they could testify in court, whether they were merely agents of their husbands. And again, there was a certain amount of denial of self-ownership. And maybe it’s not man stealing, woman stealing. If you steal from a woman the responsibility to be held responsible for the consequences of her actions, then you are stealing part of her humanity, part of her dignity. 

Took a long time for society to understand this. It’s still an imperfect understanding. But libertarians played a role. And when I’m saying libertarians, I’m including classical liberals, people who were arguing from libertarian principles before the word was ever used. They were at the forefront of this understanding that black people, women, everybody is an individual deserving of equal respect.

Gay rights took even longer. You couldn’t argue that there was any particular understanding of gay rights coming out of the American Revolution. Rights of women, rights of African Americans, those do start to be recognized by people willing to acknowledge that they recognize it, coming out of the American Revolution. Even so, if you look at a few of the more forward-thinking views on homosexuality, you find them coming from people like Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham, who are essentially libertarians, sometimes in unpublished manuscripts, because it was a different world back then, sometimes in conversation or lecture notes that got recorded. But there are examples of people in the libertarian world questioning the oppressions of gay people that really nobody else was questioning back then. And then after the civil rights revolution, after the feminist revolution of the 1960s, then very quickly, libertarian and classically liberal-minded people being to understand, yes, gay people are also people; should not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. And in every case, I think libertarians have been among the people who saw these connections, made these Insights earliest in the discussion.

We live a world largely characterized by individualism, including individual rights, property rights. We mostly get the right; have the right to decide how we will live our lives. One of the things libertarians may underestimate in talking to people is how much of our lives really are free already. We don’t ask Congress what time we should get up in the morning. We don’t ask the police to get our kids to go to school, although they sometimes take that responsibility for themselves. But we don’t ask them. We don’t ask that parliament to tell us what to fix for dinner. We make all these decisions. What car to buy, what computer to buy, what clothes to wear, we make those decisions ourselves. So we’re living in a largely individualist, modern world. Nevertheless, there are so many ways that the State does continue to deny our individualism, to steal at least part of our humanity, if not all of it, in the United States and around the world.

One of the things the State does, and I’ve been talking about that here, is it dehumanizes us by treating us as parts of groups. It used to be the king is up here, and below him are the dukes, and below them the earls, and below them the knights, and then you get down to the peasants. And it’s all a hierarchy and everybody stays where they are. And that really is dehumanizing. People don’t always see it that way at the time, but it is treating people as merely part of a class. You are the peasant class. You are the priestly class. You are the lords, the monarchs, and so on. Today, too often, government defines people still by race or sexual orientation or gender or some other grouping. And a lot of times, I think people complain about identity politics. Why are these people organizing as African Americans or Irish Americans or whatever? One of the reasons they organize that way is because first, the State treated them as a member of that class. The State said because you are homosexual, you are a class that is denied recourse to the courts for the oppression done to you. What does that do? It causes gay people to organize under identity politics. Now I would prefer they organize under a more individualist banner, but still the grouping was originally created by the State. We all know that there are no perfect lines between races, and yet the State defines people as members of particular races. And particularly, racist states even have regulatory bodies to decide who is on which side of the line. 

In South Africa, they had four official races: black, white, colored for people who were partly black and partly white, and Asian. I think they actually called it Malay, but anybody who was of any Asian heritage would be in that category. And they had a population registration bureau. So if you wanted to claim, “Mike, the guy who [inaudible – 12:52] house next to me, he does not look white to me. I would like you to investigate him.” And they would do that.

In the United States, we’ve had a few instances recently as part of Affirmative Action program to trying to define who’s actually black, who’s actually Hispanic, that sort of thing. Treating us as part of groups, whether the intention is to help us or hurt us, is dehumanizing and denying our individuality.

What else does a state do? Well, it takes our money from us, and then it doles it back to us like an allowance. We go out, we earn whatever money we do, we want to spend it to make our family’s lives better, but the government takes 10 percent or 30 percent or 40 percent or 50 percent. In 1st Samuel 8, the Lord warned that if you create a king, he will take 10 percent of all your produce. We should be so lucky. They take about 40 percent of all our produce, and obviously, in some countries around the world, more than that, 50, 70 percent. And then to some extent, it doles it back to us like an allowance. Whether you’re an exporter getting export/import bank subsidies, a farmer getting farm subsidies, a welfare recipient getting welfare, you’d be better off if you were allowed to make your own money and spend it the way you want to than having to petition the government to give you an allowance like a child. 

And then there are so many ways that the State doesn’t trust us to decide things for ourselves. It doesn’t believe that we would know how to save for retirement, so it forces us into a Social Security system. It doesn’t believe we would know how to save for healthcare, so it forces us into a Medicare system. The State doesn’t believe we would know how to pick a school for our children, so it forces us to send our children to schools that the government has not only selected but is operating. They may not be very good, but everybody is assigned to them. In all of these ways, the government is taking away our individuality, which means both our freedom and our responsibility. Do you know how to pick a school for your children? Maybe, maybe not. But one of the reasons you don’t know is that you don’t have to; the government tells you. 

Back when I was a kid, there was only one phone you could get. You had to go to the phone company and say, “I want a phone.” Young people today can’t even imagine such a world. Who thought people would know how to pick phones? But that’s the way it was back then. There is a phone. 

Hillary Clinton, back when she was First Lady, said in some discussion, “There is no such thing as other people’s children.” That is just such a chilling, profoundly anti-individualist statement. There’s no such thing as other people’s children also means there’s no such thing as your children. You have no more responsibility for your children than your neighbors, the people across the country, Hillary Clinton, a bunch of bureaucrats. If there’s no such thing as other people’s children, then there’s no such thing as your family. That’s how we dehumanize people. We take away their freedom, and we take away their responsibility to make choices, accept the consequences, and learn to make better choices. You try to regulate these things. You try to take the responsibility away from people, tell them that you will make the decision for them, then people never learn how to make good choices for themselves. And that’s why a fundamental part of libertarianism is defending the equal rights and equal dignity of every individual.

Question: You mentioned Hillary Clinton, but another worse quote came to mind with Bernie Sanders and the different types of perfume that people choose. And presumably, because we have these choices, other children in the world will starve. How would we as libertarians respond to the claim that people have choices because others have not?

David Boaz: We would just roll our eyes and sigh. Bernie Sanders said, “We shouldn’t have 23 kinds of sneakers and 18 kinds of deodorant while any child is hungry.” That suggests that we should not have a market economy while any child is hungry. Well, I’ll tell you one thing: if we didn’t have a market economy, before then, all children were hungry. Children died, adults died young, women died in childbirth before we had a market economy. So it just doesn’t make any sense at all. How do we create enough wealth in society that we can be generous to the poor, either through private charity and churches or through the government? By having a market economy that produces enough of a surplus that it can be reallocated voluntarily or coercively. So it was just an appallingly ignorant thing to say.