Liberty isn’t rugged invidualism

Advocates of liberty are often wrongly characterized as ‘rugged individualists.’ I often hear our position referred to as ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ or an ‘on-your-own’ society.

I think this straw man exists for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s an expedient portrait to paint of political opponents when you don’t wish voters to think too deeply about the issues. It turns out that Don’t vote for the mean guys is a compelling campaign message.

Second, and possibly more common, is that a great many people confound government and society as one in the same. They see society expressed through government, rather than government as having a specific and limited role to play in society, like the role a janitor or security guard has in cleaning and protecting a building.

To these folks “we”, government and society are interchangeable ideas. Whatever “we” think “we” should do, should be done through government.

In my The Government Subsidy Fallacy post from January, 2012, I reference a David Henderson Econlog blog post that referenced this quote from 1800s French economist, Frederic Bastiat:

When we oppose subsidies, we are charged with opposing the very thing that it was proposed to subsidize and of being the enemies of all kinds of activity, because we want these activities to be voluntary and to seek their proper reward in themselves.

This applies to all government activity. If you oppose a government program intended to help the poor, you are accused by the people who confound government and society for not wanting to help the poor at all.

And, if you prefer liberty to big government, then that can only mean that you are a rugged individualist — you believe only the fittest should survive and everyone should carry their own weight.

But, you don’t need to be a rugged individualist to respect that the next guy deserves a chance to decide what is right for him without you sticking your nose in, just as you expect the same respect from him (“golden rule of liberty”).  You earn your freedom by letting others have theirs’.

That may be individualism, but it is not rugged individualism. And definitely not ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘on your own’ society.

Individuals are important. Individuals are the building block of society. Without them, there is no society. It’s as simple as that. I think this is something that most people in our country believe intuitively. That’s not an -ism. I don’t think we would take the effort to educate people or attempt to help others through government or otherwise if we didn’t believe individuals were important.

Respecting the liberty of others doesn’t mean that you want an ‘on-your-own’ society. Quite the contrary. It means that you recognize that the greater good is better served from the voluntary actions of individuals than through involuntary, even if well-intended, actions of government.

Voluntary actions work so well for the greater good that not only do the unfit survive, but they don’t even really exist. In a free society with lots of specialization, nearly everyone can usually find something with which they are fit.

But for those who confound government and society, they have trouble seeing the benefits that result from voluntary actions be it trading, charity or otherwise. Why?

Even as they personally benefit from so many things provided by profit-seeking trading including basics like indoor plumbing, bountiful food, shelter, climate control and amenities like fashion handbags, smartphones and a camera in just about everything, these people scoff at the idea that businesses do good by seeking profit for their owners. They view profit-seeking as a drain on society.

They don’t see that they are the very people who have rewarded the owners with profit. They also don’t understand why they rewarded the owners — because they too gained value (or profited) from the product. Even though they participate and benefit from this activity 24/7, it is such a part of their daily lives, it is invisible to them.

These people also discount the notion that charitable activities can ever be generous enough to meet all the needs of the poor or they have strange ideas about why they do not prefer private charity. I recall one conversation where I mentioned how well churches carry out charity. The person agreed, but said she didn’t want people in need to have to get a pitch on religion just to get help. There was so much wrong with that, I didn’t know where to begin.

So, with trade, charity and other voluntary actions discredited as a reliable and viable way to achieve the greater good, that leaves government. If they see one person who wasn’t served well by private actions (usually these are the people who are asked to stand at State of the Union addresses), that’s all the convincing they need for government intervention. Rarely do they ask, can I do something to help solve this problem? It’s far easier to support government doing it and then assume the moral high-ground for that. In fact, that requires no action beyond flapping lips.

So, as a supporter of liberty, when someone tries to pin you with the ‘on-your-own’, rugged individualist tag, don’t let them off so easy. Explain that one of the things that attracts you liberty is that it does a far better job of serving the greater good than government and why you think that. It may not lead to an immediate change in thinking, but it could plant a seed that could blossom later.

10 thoughts on “Liberty isn’t rugged invidualism

  1. Wow. I really needed to read this. I am really struggling with this topic right now. There are so many homeless people where I live. We would give them food for weeks….and they seem to still be there. People give them money, gloves, shoes…and their still there. I know I can not solve this poverty problem, The problem I have is I don’t know when someone is deceiving me. How do I know if they really want to get off the streets? How do I know that they won’t take the money and buy drugs, cigarettes or alcohol? Or selling what I gave them for money. I want to help, but I don’t want to be duped. Talk to me and help me figure this out.

    • The road to Hell is paved with good intentions!

      As Seth points out, when the government sets out to do what they imagine is some good deed, they commit two sins – first, they deprive some individuals of their liberties in order to make that “good” deed happen and second, they engage in what Hayek referred to as the “fatal conceit” by assuming that they are smarter than the market in knowing what’s best for everyone else.

      No offense, but YOU are assuming that your good intentions regarding the homeless will necessarily have good results. While I’m certain that you mean well – you’re obviously concerned with whether or not you’re efforts are paying off – it’s evident that good intentions don’t imply good results.

      Perhaps the best we can do as a society interested in the “general welfare” (as originally meant in the Constitution) of our fellow citizens is to demand that our elected officials return us to a government that creates conditions favorable to individuals becoming producers rather than moochers. Economics teaches us that incentives matter – that when we penalize (tax) something, we get less of it, and when we reward (subsidize) something, we get more of it. Think of how that applies to people who produce (earn) a great deal and people who live off government welfare/entitlements.

      The best thing we can do for those who have little incentive to work and much incentive to not work is to change the incentives, not reward them with more incentives for not working. Will we reach every poor soul? Nope, but the backassward system of punishments and rewards we have drifted to obviously hasn’t worked.

      What can we do as an intermediate step to help someone get back on their feet while minimizing the reward/punishment conundrum outline above? It’s obvious that you’ve recognized the perils of giving them money or things they can sell for money. Might I suggest that you contribute or help out at “soup kitchen”? many of these facilities also have temporary living quarters and programs that allow and encourage the homeless to get training and/or a job. As you will recognize, they can’t sell the meal or the living quarters.

  2. “Second, and possibly more common, is that a great many people confound government and society as one in the same. They see society expressed through government, rather than government as having a specific and limited role to play in society, like the role a janitor or security guard has in cleaning and protecting a building.”

    I suspect that people may think the government has a different role in society. If we go with the building metaphor, maybe they view government as the maintenance guy or the HR person or even the CEO.

    I’m sure I don’t know which of those (including janitor and security guard) is the correct role for government. I suspect it probably changes in response to trends in the society that houses that government.

    “Even though they participate and benefit from this activity 24/7, it is such a part of their daily lives, it is invisible to them.”

    Is a specific example of this the ubiquity of cell phones? Amazing little machines. They’re everywhere and by being everywhere they become ordinary. That’s kind of the story of modern convenience, cheap food and central air – isn’t it? The extraordinary becomes banal.

    If the argument against government handouts to the poor is that it takes away incentive to work, then can I toss out an argument that the ubiquity of modern convenience takes away people’s incentive to think critically?

    I’m thinking something along the lines of: If life is so easy, why does one need to learn to problem solve? What if part of being a rugged individualist means allowing yourself to be challenged so that you can learn? Could you be a compassionate individualist who goes out and learns these lessons and then tries to pass them on to other people?

    • When I hear someone say, “We just can’t let this happen and must therefore…” followed by some action for government to fix it, I ask them what they think the role of government is. I never get clear answers. Maybe I’ll try the building metaphor to see which role or roles they play.

      I do think ubiquity makes us less likely to appreciate something. I didn’t know how good we have it until I traveled to another country in my early-20s and saw what poverty there meant. Also, most folks don’t realize how much they value electricity until they experience an extended outage.

      But, I don’t know if I would call someone who challenges himself to learn a rugged individualist. Rugged individualism seems to be another variant of the ‘on-your-own’ society, which is campaign rhetoric and a straw man.

      • I hear you and I see your points. We serve at a homeless shelter 1 time per month and do a lot of giving through our church. These same people are still on the street?! Am I to become calloused to their “supposed” needs and say, “I’ve tried. I had good intentions but you obviously don’t want to get better.” I hear homeless people making upwards of 300.00 per day. My husband just ignores them. He, like you, says if you don’t give to them, they will find a better way. The old saying, “Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime, give a man a fish, feed him for a day.” Maybe that is the ticket to the homeless problem… Teaching them to be wise stewards of money and belongings.

        • Maybe I don’t need to write a separate post. I agree with Mike’s points and it sounds like you do, too. I will share that nearly everyone I know, including myself, has gone through the same struggle.

          I discovered a local charity that targets the circumstantial homeless — folks who want to become self-sufficient. They are careful in their selection process, because they too learn that self-sufficiency is not a goal of all the people who apply. If accepted, this group provides them with shelter and gives them classes on money management and job skills. They have a high success rate, which even the charity credits partially to their stringent selection process.

          This outfit also runs thrift stores to fund its operations. Their thrift store gets a good deal of our discarded valued goods. I started organizing a 5k run 3-years ago to raise money for it. I’m lucky enough to have a good group of folks have ‘ran’ with it and it is on its way to becoming a significant fundraising event for the charity.

          I encourage you to continue to learn and be creative about ways you can help. The best thing about all of these efforts is that none of it involves government programs that can spin out of control. Just private individuals doing something to help.

          I’m not sure there is a full ticket to the homeless problem. It’s really hard for us to imagine, but some people actually choose that. Have you seen this documentary:

          This homeless guy was given a $100k and eventually decided to go back to the streets. He didn’t want the responsibility that comes with a home. It’s tough for us to imagine choosing that, but when I watched this about 10 years ago, it made me think that what I value isn’t necessarily what others value. We see this guy as having a problem, but he doesn’t see it that way. We create a problem if we try to force our values on him. It opened my eyes to the fatal conceit, as Mike mentions.


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