I’ve written in the past about my view of rights. Specifically, I see them as characteristics of relationships. To paint with a broad brush, they’re the boundaries of the authority a party can assume within a certain relationship. I really like the way it tidies up certain libertarian gray zones, like minors and animals.
Anyway, there are two ways that libertarians tend to view rights: Deferentialism and Restraintism. Deferentialism is “live and let live.” Restraintism is “mind your own business.” My conception of rights as characteristics of relationships falls heavily on the Restraintist side. One of the big themes of my article on these libertarian views of rights is that Deferentialism cedes any moral standing, but Restraintism retains moral standing. I wrote:
Deferentialism is ineffective in two ways. First, people, even Deferentialists, tend to have a line drawn in the sand where they shift from relativistic deference to the individual to a more absolutist stance. For example, Cosmotarians tend to be Deferentialists up to the point where their particular identity politics ox is gored. Second, Deferentialism gives no answer to Cultural Marxism. Deferentialists are either forced to kowtow to the virulent left, or they end up drifting authoritarian.
Radical Individualism is very strongly correlated with Deferentialism. The radical individualist not only rejects the government meddling that all libertarians loathe, but they also reject any attempt of society, the community, family, or friends to influence their behavior. I believe that the moral relativism inherent in “live and let live” results in a wholecloth rejection of authority, even in situations where the authority may be legitimate. In order to stay philosophically consistent, the radical individualist ends up sounding like the punk 17 year old whining that his parents can’t tell him what to do anymore. This is the most superficial way that radical individualism harms broader libertarianism.
Libertarianism has a reputation for being something you grow out of once you get real life experience. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that it makes sense on paper, but the real world is too complex for it to work. I think that a large portion of that sentiment comes from the outsized influence of the most virulent form of radical individualism, Objectivism. I’ll freely admit that I’ve never read a word of Rand, and I’m not beating the library’s door down to get a copy of Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. However, her influence is felt far and wide through the libertarian movement, and it undergirds the complaints that libertarianism is a pipe dream of maladjusted teenagers.
Taking it down another level, the radical individualist answer to the complexities of the real world tends to be “fuck everything except for my rights.” You’re never going to hear me get squishy on self-ownership, but when this all or nothing attitude transcends the government-citizen relationship, the line blurs between fervent defender of self-ownership and weapons grade asshole.
Not to pick on her, but Nikki’s view on children is an outcropping of radical individualism. (For those who do not remember, Nikki basically believed that children had full agency and that parental discipline/guidance/control was essentially a form of abuse). Despite the fact that the parent-child authority dynamic is perfectly natural and is seen in many species besides our own, Nikki’s complete inability to decouple the illegitimate authority of the state from the legitimate authority of parents led to a facially ridiculous outcome. Whether viewed emotionally, in a utilitarian lens, practically, or in a principled lens, treating children as having full agency is a non-starter.
Just because the most visible and outspoken authority is abused doesn’t mean that there is no legitimate authority in the world. However, most legitimate authority is voluntary authority. I listen to my boss’s instructions because I want to be paid. The day I no longer need my paycheck is the day that my boss loses his authority over me.
Of course, I’m talking in abstraction when it comes to authority relationships as if a person has carte blanche authority over another. Every authority relationship has boundaries. In the government context, those boundaries are called rights. In a familial context, violation of those boundaries is called abuse. In social settings, those boundaries are called manners, propriety, or a handful of other names.
However, I don’t think this point needs any more belaboring. It’s not particularly interesting or controversial to say that all relationships have boundaries.
What’s more interesting is Distributism, specifically their foundational belief that the nuclear family is the base social unit, not the individual. I’m sympathetic to this belief primarily because I think that the modern shift away from traditional family has been on the back of government programs and government incentives. If I were to jump to the crux of the issue with radical individualism, I think this is it: radical individualism is unsustainable absent government subsidy.
Literal individualism (never marrying, never procreating) is self-defeating as a concept. You live your life, you die, and your specific form of individualism is gone like a fart on the wind. Not saying you can’t live this way or that society should disfavor people who live this way, but it’s a transient way of life. You cannot base a society on a concept that, if practiced by all, would result in the extinction of your society within one generation.
Subsidized individualism (single parenthood, divorce, etc.) only works because government is paying for it. I was watching The Sands of Iwo Jima the other day, and there was a scene where a woman tries to trap John Wayne’s character into a marriage because her husband had run out on her (or died in the war, I forget which). Being a single parent in the 19th and early 20th centuries was ROUGH. There was no “affordable preschool”, there were no flexible work hours, there was no FMLA. There were no anti-discrimination laws for hiring single moms. By and large, people remarried quickly and relied on family to help them out in the interim. Family was necessary…. fundamental, even.
The subsidies go even further than you see at first glance. Even though all demographics take advantage of the “free” public schooling available to babysit their kids for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 13 years, the effects of removing that subsidy would be felt quite unevenly across demographics. Nuclear families, while being thoroughly inconvenienced (especially those who have an inflated two income lifestyle), have the blueprint to retake supervisory authority over their kids. One parent works. One watches the kids. Icky patriarchial family structure.
What about subsidized individualists? What happens to the single mom or dad when the government subsidies go away? Sure, the affluent can afford hired help for raising the kids, but the masses can’t afford such a thing. The masses… they could go broke paying for daycare/private school, and a few probably would. Most would change their situation by either creating a nuclear family or relying on extended family to help out. Either way, family is the core. When you take the subsidies away, all that is left is family.
This is why radical individualism is a blight on libertarianism. It’s either self-defeating on a societal level (in the case of literal individualism), or it’s based on a lifestyle that is antithetical to libertarianism on a societal level (in the case of subsidized individualism).
I didn’t really address voluntary community in this article for two reasons. 1) I’m not convinced that community isn’t a form of extended family. 2) Voluntary community has a history of helping on the fringes, not massively altering the incentives across society.
Instead of turning this into an essay, I’ll just leave a few questions for the commentariat’s consideration. If the family is the base unit of society, what does a dysfunctional family mean for society? Does any of this actually matter when it comes to governance, or is it just useful as a framework to convince others to embrace libertarianism? How do individuals interact in a family-centric society?