Column on Revolutions and the Past

Sound Revolutions Rest on the Past

Tibor R. Machan

The idea may appear to be an oxymoron but it isn’t. The seeds of a sound revolution do not come out of a vacuum. Although the American Founders did upend the previous practice of entrusting countries into the hands of monarchs, czars, and other potential despots, the roots of the individualism with which they achieved this were already in place. 

It all came out of the idea of personal responsibility, something the ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle–as well as some less well know ones, such as Alcibiades–embraced and championed. There was, however, a disjoint afoot. Only ethics, the concern about how persons ought to act, was influenced significantly by the notion, not politics. At least not much of it. The morally virtuous life championed by these thinkers had been individualist–after all, to be morally virtuous had to be something that individuals had to choose. There is no ethical life without choice. Aristotle, who is often said to have been a kind of communitarian in his politics was, in fact, an individualist when it came to ethics. Moral virtues such as prudence, honesty, generosity, courage and even justice–more a political than an ethical virtue–depend for their practice on individuals thinking and acting right. Being forced to be virtuous is indeed an oxymoron–ethics presupposes free choice, a free will on the part of the agent.

But while this ethical individualism had been strongly suggested way back then, the corresponding political individualism lagged behind. One may assume this to have been one result of, among other things, a great deal of tribal thinking–people tended to worry mostly about their group’s survival, which was the main if not only approach to personal survival. (In time this changed but habits die hard!) And the ethical demands placed on people were already substantially individualistic–they were responsible personally, as individuals ultimately, to do the right thing and blameworthy if they failed to do it. 

However, this came into conflict with the demands of politics which often put citizens into a position of subservience. (Sparta was the quintessential case in point.) Nonetheless, this element of ethical individualism–so well discussed by the late David L. Norton, in his superb book, Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton University Press, 1976)–eventually bloomed into the social and political individualism that the American Founders laid down as the foundation of their new country. Yes, it was revolutionary but, no, it wasn’t without earlier philosophical foundations. 

The problem is, of course, that the political collectivism of the past keeps resurfacing whenever people turn to politics, especially in scary times like now. The teachings of the Founders haven’t managed to thoroughly sink in, so that many people still believe that politics cannot be individualistic especially in times of trouble, even if in fact only an individualist politics will help them out of their messes. 

Many misguidedly think that in scary times solutions have to be socialist, communitarian, social democratic, or some other modern version of collectivist–and thus coercive—public policy, instead of the classical liberal idea of limited government that rests on a social, economic, legal and other form of individualism.

Still, over time the individualist, classical liberal political economy has shown (to anyone who pays close attention) that it really is the best way to handle problems of human community life. The public good is indeed what the American Founders believed, the protection of the basic rights of individuals. Yes, there is such a thing as the public good or interest but it is limited to providing everyone with the protection of his or her rights to life, liberty and property. Other problems can best be solved when this appropriately limited public good is secured and not when governments assume responsibility for everything.

The truth of individualism is not that nothing but individuals matter but that they matter the most. So whatever else matters must not interfere with the conditions that make their flourishing possible. 

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