Rethinking Libertariansm – Part II

No Man Is An Island

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

~John Donne

All of civilization is a collaborative effort. We put a man on the Moon, not because Neil Armstrong was so great, but because an entire nation put their resources behind tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, medical personnel, welders, janitors, food-service workers, and accountants (to name a few) to bring that achievement to fruition. The pyramids weren’t built by pharaohs and architects, but by engineers and slaves. The Declaration of Independence was written by four men, signed by a few dozen, and underwritten in the blood of thousands of patriots.

Today, if a man starts a business, his great idea may the spark, and his own labor may be the tinder, but it burns the fuel of many to become a roaring fire. He relies on the vehicle he drives to and from his office; the roads upon which he drives; the roof under which he works; the efforts of his employees; the education his employees were given; the teachers who taught his employees years or even decades ago; the parents of his employees who imparted the values of honesty and industriousness. He depends on his clients and customers having the resources to purchase his products or services. No man is an island unto himself, and no economic activity occurs in a vacuum.

How many businesses went out of business in 2008-2009? How many of them were only indirectly linked to the financial services meltdown? The nation, as a whole, suffered. When one suffers, all do. Rugged Individualists are Social Darwinists, who will say that those who failed to survive those times deserved to fail, because of their lack of resilience and foresight. Perhaps that’s the case, but did their employees deserve to fail, to be laid off during a recession, when it was difficult or impossible to find new work? Do they continue to deserve to fail, because employers are reluctant to hire people who have been unemployed an extended period of time?

“The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”

~David Mitchell, “The Cloud Atlas” ,
~based on the Chinese Proverb 弱肉強食

Our Lives Are Not Our Own

“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.”

~Words of Sonmi 451 from “The Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

Rugged Individualism places the brunt of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of individuals, whether for good or ill, but we do not live in isolation from each other. We are all mutually interdependent— a part of a great web of responsibility, one to another. What harms my next door neighbor, or the school across town, the auto worker in Detroit, or the almond farm in California, or the diamond-miners in South Africa, harms me.

If I am a castaway on a desert island, then yes, my survival will largely depend on my mental and physical preparedness, along with a degree of luck. Success in a social world, however, is a function of entire societies. I can not ignore the joblessness, poverty, and crime of “the bad part of town”, thinking “it has nothing to do with me”.

Individual versus Collective Evolution

In evolution, we generally think that the survival of the individual that is the most important; that the individual must survive to pass on its genes. But this is not the case. One’s family group also shares a large percentage of one’s genes. A child will have approximately 25% of its genes in common with its direct grandparent, but it will also have as much in common with its aunt or uncle. We have no problem with the idea that it serves an evolutionary purpose for a grandparent to come to the aid of a grandchild, yet we ignore the fact that a man, with no children of his own, might just as well ensure the survival of his genes by taking over the care of his nieces and nephews.

Within tribal groups, even more genes may be shared due to a fair amount of in-breeding. Mankind evolved in band societies of 40-60 individuals, who also had looser associations with other bands in a tribe, with whom there were relational ties. The survival of the individual may be important for evolution, but the more strongly social a species is, the more heavily invested individuals become in the survival of the group. At an extreme, a hive of bees will see dozens of individual bees voluntary sacrifice their lives to preserve the queen, who carries the genes to the next generation. This is why humankind has the capacity for self-sacrifice. If evolution were purely an individual thing, self-sacrifice would not occur; but we defend the weak and vulnerable, because we evolved to protect not only our own offspring, but the offspring of closely related females in our tribal groups. Men evolved behaviorally to place themselves into mortal danger to protect women, because, in a tribal group, every man but the last one is spurious for genetic procreation– a single man can produce children with an entire band of women. The survival of the tribe is dependent on the survival of its child-bearing women and at least one male to “act as stud”.

So the rugged individualist variety of Libertarian Philosophy is not in harmony with how we succeeded and thrived as a species throughout millions of years of evolution. In tribal bands, we find that the worst sins one can commit are those which elevate the individual above the rest of the group: bragging, hoarding, taking more than one’s share of common resources– these are all big violations of the group ethics and antithetical to Randian Libertarianism. The individual is an servant of the group, just as the group serves the individual. “All for One, and One for All” is the cry of the aborigine as well as the Musketeer. Group cohesion and harmony are paramount considerations.

Leave a Reply