Individualism through collectivism!

Democratic freedom came to be envisaged not as the preservation of immunity from the State but as full participation in the power of the State.  Democracy popularized and in a significant sense sanctified the State relationship.  The continuous expansion of political power and responsibility that has been inherent in the democratic state would be inexplicable were it not for the underlying, popular, emotional acceptance of the State as a haven and provider even as the Church held this role in earlier Europe. –Robert Nisbet, Leadership and Social Crisis


The thought of Robert Nisbet continues to provoke new insights for me.  His focus on the value of intermediate social bodies as an incubator of culture and value, along with their function as natural hedges against State incursion into the private actions of individuals and collectives has been unfortunately neglected by libertarians; indeed, Nisbet’s arguments represent a valuable defense against slanders of libertarians as selfish, atomistic and callous.  Along with Frank S. Meyer, libertarians unfairly ignore Robert Nisbet as yet another conservative, neglecting the strength of his thought.

Rather than define a common struggle throughout history as the individual against the collective, Nisbet analyzed the struggle between intermediate associations (family, church, neighborhood, community, voluntary association, union, etc.) and a centralizing Leviathan.  In a 1997 paper in Modern Age, Robert G. Perrin paraphrases Nisbet’s thought: “the state  became ascendant in Western society by successfully undermining the autonomy and functions of civil society, that is, the intermediary or close-at-hand social groupings which develop, integrate, regulate, and energize individuals through kinship, belief, work, and recreation (41).”  Nisbet critiqued the centralization of State power on the grounds that it harmed and violated the collective (rather than the individual) by increasing its realm of action and transferring societal responsibilities the State.  Tradition and custom, in lieu of advancing State power, may restrain the State.

At their own peril, individualists discard tradition and custom in the name of liberation.  Intermediary social groupings, though much maligned and criticized (correctly and incorrectly), may prove to inculcate traditions of liberty that lack a transmission line to continue when these traditions are upset.  Many libertarians scoff at the idea of valuing tradition and custom; however, “these same institutions were a counterweight against centralized political authority; they offered some immunity or protection against political excess or arbitrariness (42).”  The shortcomings of the classical liberal individualists (along with intellectuals such as Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx and Bentham) appears in their rationalistic rejection of tradition, custom, authority and hierarchy, failing to comprehend that these institutions may perpetuate liberty and limit centralized political authority.

Assuredly, tradition, custom, authority and hierarchy may be oppressive (in some cases, such as slavery, they are always oppressive), but embracing an anti-tradition, anti-custom, anti-authority, and anti-hierarchy attitude exhibits flaws that damage the preservation of liberty.  Tradition, custom, authority and hierarchy have complicated, inconsistent relationships with preserving liberty.  They must be evaluated on their merits and performance according to liberty, societal cohesion and utility; instead of an outright condemnation, a subtler approach proves vital in assessing their merits.  Churches may foster anti-intellectualism, intolerance, fanaticism and hate; however, they may also foster charity, devotion, compassion and communal bonds.  Abolishing the church as an institution based on its costs while ignoring its benefits may weaken State limitations, allowing its expansion.

Paradoxically, collectivism may be a benevolent guardian to individualism, provided it is voluntary and limited.  Libertarian thought cannot continue to de-emphasize the fact that “communities fulfill the ‘fundamental human desires’ of ‘living together, working together, experiencing together, [and] being together.’”  The “quest for community…springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature (47).”  Few (if any) libertarians believe man is an island, but silence in regard to discussion of community and an almost overwhelming focus on the individual fails to produce a study on the value of the collective from an individualist interpretation while providing fodder for conservatives, liberals and the rest who wish to discredit libertarian thought.

It should be expected that libertarian thought nearly completely ignores collectivism except as a bogeyman (with the exceptions of a few, most notably Hayek, Nisbet and Tocqueville); advocating against coercive collectivism inevitably develops an emphasis on individualism.  However, an indispensable distinction emerges between coercive and voluntary collectivism.  The former destroys society while the latter preserves it; individualism performs a correcting influence.

Left-libertarians do a fantastic job of thinking beyond economics, but have a tendency to deride tradition, custom, authority and hierarchy as inherently negative.  Libertarian thought must develop to intelligently critique these institutions, rather than issue a blanket condemnation.  Intermediary associations often provide societal cohesion and individual development that limits State power and expansion; when effective intermediary associations disappear, society turns to Leviathan for the “deep-seated psychological need” of association.