Individualism: True and False
By David Henderson
One of my Facebook “friends” (really a friendly acquaintance) linked today to an excellent piece on Salon. It’s Jeremiah Goulka’s “Why I Left the GOP.” In it, he tells how he was a Republican as a young adult and even worked in the Bush administration. He tells of how shocked he was that the Bush administration cared so little about habeas corpus for alleged terrorists and wreaked havoc in Iraq. He also discusses, on the domestic front, life in America for the underclass–their run-ins with police, etc. I don’t know Mr. Goulka’s background and so I don’t know how he, obviously an intelligent and observant man, managed not to observe what has been obvious to many of my libertarian friends and me for a long time.
But better late than never. And I don’t mean that in a catty way. Mr. Goulka could well be an ally in the future fight against the oppressive state. I could go on and catalogue the many things on which I agree with him. But time is limited and those who know my views can quickly figure out where I’m likely to agree. I simply recommend that you read the article.
I do want to highlight one jarring passage though. Mr. Goulka writes:
Up until then, I hadn’t really seen most Americans as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people. My values shifted — from an individualistic celebration of success (that involved dividing the world into the morally deserving and the undeserving) to an interest in people as people.
If his point is to say that he’s gone beyond celebrating success, then good for him. But what makes the passage jarring is his use of the word “individualistic” directly after his statement that he didn’t think of people as individuals. I see all Americans, not just most, and, indeed all humans as “living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people.” That’s the essence of individualism. I don’t see people as a mass. So, for example, when I think of the drug war, I don’t kid myself that the war is on inanimate objects: it’s on people, many of whom are in the underclass, and many of whom will have their lives destroyed by time spent in prison. When I think of sanctions on Iran, I don’t think of Iranians as one big glob but, rather, as millions of individuals, many of whom do love and dream and are being hurt by Obama’s and many of the European governments’ ruthless actions. And if the drug war ends and the sanctions on Iran end, to name just two of governments’ many oppressive actions, I will engage in an “individualist celebration of the success” of the potentially millions of unseen people who won’t have their lives wrecked.
Most Sundays I walk with a friend from the bottom to the top of Jack’s Peak, a local park. Sometimes–and last Sunday was one of those times–we see two probation officers supervising a bunch of young people who are clearing leaves from the road we walk on. The probation officers appear to be armed. I always say hi to them and smile. Like co-blogger Bryan, I believe in friendliness, although it’s not particularly “libertarian friendliness.” My belief in friendliness preceded my belief in liberty by many years. But I don’t assume that the probation officers are in the right. I don’t know. So I’m also friendly to the young people clearing the road. Last Sunday, I thanked many of them for their good work. Some acknowledged my thanks and some didnt’; all looked surprised. I saw one young girl and asked her, out of hearing of the nearer probation officer, “What were you tagged for?” “Truancy,” she said, embarrassed. “That sucks,” I said. Then I wanted to reach for some kind of hope to offer her and I said, “Just make it to age 18. It gets better.”
I hope Mr. Goulka can see that his mistake was not in being an individualist but in rejecting individualism. I welcome him as a potential ally.