This is a response to an article by Stephen Hopewell in The Heritage American.



I’ll start with a disclaimer, since I’ve noticed the words “traditionalist” and “conservative” in much of your blog and I’d rather not give the impression that I particularly identify with those goals. On the question you ask – “How individualistic should we be?” – I have to tell you that none of what I say in response will appeal to either traditionalism or conservatism. Tradition (and the conserving thereof by conservatism) is inherently valuable if we’re considering culture: flag colors and patriotic songs and the customs of Thanksgiving. But if we’re talking policy-making, things are a little different. Policy should be judged to be good or bad irrespective of whether or not it is contained within our traditions. A proposal may be traditional, but also very bad policy. In my opinion, this makes appealing to tradition, or custom, or convention, irrelevant to modern policy-making. Thus traditionalism (tradition for its own sake) is the enemy of good reason on policy. Your article on individualism is dependent upon ‘traditionalism’ to a large extent (for example where you say that Emerson’s words “…certainly invite a disdain for conventional morality,” as though what is conventional has an unusual and special status that factors into any moral considerations like the ones in this piece). That would certainly be my prefatory critique (which I’ll pick up again later).

What attracted me to your article was the mention of Ayn Rand and her political philosophy. I’m a libertarian who identifies with Rand’s defense of individual liberty as a principle upon which to build a morally justified government. It’s precisely because America enshrined much of those same principles in the foundations of its government that I love the United States so much. Like Rand, I am an immigrant here. I moved from Northern Ireland a few years ago to America, and it’s much easier to be a libertarian here than there! I, like Rand and like yourself, am worried that some of what makes America great is being eroded due to the influence of leftist values which would seek to remove liberty from the individual and define rights collectively instead.

In other words, I think the Randian principles of individualism are precisely what make America great, need defended and strengthened and are so lacking elsewhere in the world. Contrary to what I hear conservatives say on occasion, it was the secularism of America that made it what it was; the first nation in history to allow its citizens the freedom to pursue their own religious beliefs rather than enshrine it in government. Individualism defined the new nation, more than any other defining characteristic. I take issue with your article because you appear to disagree:

The world has changed. Rand’s libertarian approach seems increasingly ineffective in face of the problems brought by mass third-world immigration, Islamic jihad, and a widespread cultural and moral collapse. A general revitalization of society is needed, and this involves the strengthening, not weakening, of various social ties and values that transcend the individual. For this purpose, opposing “collectivism” and “mysticism” can be downright misguided. Is belonging to a family or a school or a community and incurring obligations related to these “subjugation to a group”? Is religion in all its manifestations merely a false method for gaining knowledge, like consulting a crystal ball? Rand fails to give a (non-hostile) account of fundamental aspects of actual human life and experience.

I’m sure Rand would reply that just because they’re parts of human experience does not mean they are welcome parts of human experience. She was an atheist, so she didn’t believe there was a god whose laws needed to be followed. But doubting Rand’s views on religion does not need to affect the validity of her views on politics: whether one is an atheist like her or a theist like me, religious tolerance is still a just value and a separation of church and state is an important right of all citizens. And nobody is arguing against families or schools or communities, or even the incurring of their obligations, so long as it’s done at an individual level. And that’s the point: the term ‘collectivism’ as used by people like me is not the voluntary coming together of people into groups for peaceful purposes but the forced “subjugation to a group” of government.

Her failure may be related to her “outsider” status. As a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, who hated both the Communist party and the Russian Orthodox Church for their anti-individualism, Rand did not appreciate the conservative side of American society. She admired the individualism of America, embodied in men like Jefferson or Edison, but had no respect for its religiosity or its Protestant middle-class values.

Let’s grant for a moment that you’re right (though I’m sure many Catholics would take issue with your characterizing America with “Protestant” values, which isn’t entirely unrelated to my point). How does it affect the validity of her political philosophy of individualism? If Americans were religious people, if they were Protestant, if they were middle class, weren’t they those things by choice rather than by compulsion? They were all the things Rand said they were: they were rational, enterprising people who made decisions about what to value at the individual level. Rand may not have understood why so many Americans chose to be religious, for example, but she didn’t need to understand why: so long as religion was not being forced upon them, the American government was honoring Rand’s values of individualism.

So what do you say about individualism as a concept?

I tend to think that the concept is of little value for us today.


But as our nation is steadily transformed into a loose conglomeration of separate and incompatible ethnic groups, and as our family, school, and work life is devastated by enforced “autonomy” and expanded “rights,” that require married couples to share equal status with homosexual cohabitants, that require schools to take in and accommodate uneducable people, that require small businesses to fit their offices with ramps and rails on the off-chance a handicapped person will apply for a job, it should become apparent at some point that we are becoming, not more, but less free. Unfree to be part of our historic people and civilization and to live according to the standards that civilization has set.

This is where I pause and say, ‘Wow.’ You’ve mashed together so many things you dislike, yet they relate to individualism differently. For example, you mention gay marriage, as though some collective harm is being done by their individual rights to be treated as the equals of heterosexuals. On the other hand you mention government imposing requirements upon business owners, interfering with their rights to run things to a degree consistent with their ownership of the businesses. The difference is clear: in the first instance rights are being upheld and in the second they are being infringed upon. And in both cases I appeal to the same principle: individualism, insofar that other rights are not being violated.

The last sentence in that paragraph is even more of an issue, because you’re making “historic” “standards” – or ‘tradition’ – the arbiter of what is good policy, rather than a steadfast principle of inalienable rights.

As that happens, individuality becomes meaningless. It becomes no more than the right to be “different,” to dress funny, to create ugly or incomprehensible art and be praised for it, to be a child at age 30 instead of a parent at age 20.

This is just another list of things you dislike, or ways people use their freedom of which you disapprove. But rights don’t disappear just because you hold disdain for how they’re being used, and individuality isn’t meaningless just because it has negative side-effects. You go on to say that freedom of speech is “worthless” because no matter how much you complain, you won’t have “the slightest effect on policy.” I’m not sure to what extent that’s true or untrue – I suspect it’s merely the case that you are, like me, finding yourself a political minority occupying a climate in which most other people disagree and, therefore, less time is given over to our opinions – but one thing is sure, and that is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with having too much individualism, “stripped of meaningful cultural associations” or not.

Bottom line? I think rights are rights and freedoms are freedoms, regardless of their practical outcomes. Tradition or not, if a right exists, then it exists for everybody. The Left and Right are used to trampling over those which they can persuade governments are expendable, but it will always be a fight over who can shout the loudest and who can take away most of the freedoms of the other side. In the current ‘culture war’, it’s only ever a matter of time before someone persuades the government to suddenly take away a right you find valuable. The Right will remove gay rights while the Left will remove gun rights. The Right will legislate against porn while the Left raises taxes to fund programs. How can you complain about the infringement of a right you like when you’ve been campaigning for the infringement of other rights you simply happen to disagree with? As they say, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Where it stops is at the concept of individualism: the rights of the individual to go about his or her own business peaceably so long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others. That may mean that people need to be rational adults who tolerate things they don’t particularly like sometimes.

Rand was right, and individualism is a timeless virtue.