David R. Henderson  

Individualism: True and False

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One of my Facebook "friends" (really a friendly acquaintance) linked today to an excellent piece on Salon. It's Jeremiah Goulka's "Why I Left the GOP." In it, he tells how he was a Republican as a young adult and even worked in the Bush administration. He tells of how shocked he was that the Bush administration cared so little about habeas corpus for alleged terrorists and wreaked havoc in Iraq. He also discusses, on the domestic front, life in America for the underclass--their run-ins with police, etc. I don't know Mr. Goulka's background and so I don't know how he, obviously an intelligent and observant man, managed not to observe what has been obvious to many of my libertarian friends and me for a long time.

But better late than never. And I don't mean that in a catty way. Mr. Goulka could well be an ally in the future fight against the oppressive state. I could go on and catalogue the many things on which I agree with him. But time is limited and those who know my views can quickly figure out where I'm likely to agree. I simply recommend that you read the article.

I do want to highlight one jarring passage though. Mr. Goulka writes:

Up until then, I hadn't really seen most Americans as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people. My values shifted -- from an individualistic celebration of success (that involved dividing the world into the morally deserving and the undeserving) to an interest in people as people.

If his point is to say that he's gone beyond celebrating success, then good for him. But what makes the passage jarring is his use of the word "individualistic" directly after his statement that he didn't think of people as individuals. I see all Americans, not just most, and, indeed all humans as "living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people." That's the essence of individualism. I don't see people as a mass. So, for example, when I think of the drug war, I don't kid myself that the war is on inanimate objects: it's on people, many of whom are in the underclass, and many of whom will have their lives destroyed by time spent in prison. When I think of sanctions on Iran, I don't think of Iranians as one big glob but, rather, as millions of individuals, many of whom do love and dream and are being hurt by Obama's and many of the European governments' ruthless actions. And if the drug war ends and the sanctions on Iran end, to name just two of governments' many oppressive actions, I will engage in an "individualist celebration of the success" of the potentially millions of unseen people who won't have their lives wrecked.

Most Sundays I walk with a friend from the bottom to the top of Jack's Peak, a local park. Sometimes--and last Sunday was one of those times--we see two probation officers supervising a bunch of young people who are clearing leaves from the road we walk on. The probation officers appear to be armed. I always say hi to them and smile. Like co-blogger Bryan, I believe in friendliness, although it's not particularly "libertarian friendliness." My belief in friendliness preceded my belief in liberty by many years. But I don't assume that the probation officers are in the right. I don't know. So I'm also friendly to the young people clearing the road. Last Sunday, I thanked many of them for their good work. Some acknowledged my thanks and some didnt'; all looked surprised. I saw one young girl and asked her, out of hearing of the nearer probation officer, "What were you tagged for?" "Truancy," she said, embarrassed. "That sucks," I said. Then I wanted to reach for some kind of hope to offer her and I said, "Just make it to age 18. It gets better."

I hope Mr. Goulka can see that his mistake was not in being an individualist but in rejecting individualism. I welcome him as a potential ally.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (11 to date)
English Professor writes:

I think you are naive in expecting Mr. Goulka to be on your side in any future libertarian crusades. He was never really a libertarian--he was a corporatist Republican (the sort, as he says, that used to be called Rockefeller Republicans). And his new revelation is clearly NOT that we need less government, but that we need government to intervene more in civil society in order to improve the lives of the downtrodden. This piece is a call for government to fix the ills of civil society. He certainly deserves, and may in fact win, what one conservative pundit used to call "the strange new respect award," which is given to a former conservative who has suddenly shown himself to be liberally enlightened. Now he can write for Salon and be lauded by all the truly enlightened people.

Ken B writes:
Like so many Republicans, I had assumed that society’s “losers” had somehow earned their deserts ...[I] viewed whole swaths of the country and the world as second-class people. ... Republicans put so much effort into ... fostering distrust of liberals, experts, scientists, and academics ... consumers of Republican-oriented media are more poorly informed than [those who] don’t bother to follow the news at all."

Well I'm glad David you didn't recommend a piece Arnold Kling would have called vitriolic! Otherwise it might have been filled with foolish and bigoted characterizations of his political opponents, so unlike the usual Slate fare.

Ken B writes:

Goulka is not the only one sounding alarm bells. Barton Hinkle made a similar argument in a recent article in Reason

David R. Henderson writes:

@English Professor,
And his new revelation is clearly NOT that we need less government, but that we need government to intervene more in civil society in order to improve the lives of the downtrodden.
You may be right, but there’s no way you’re justified in using the word “clearly.” He doesn’t advocate any interventions in that article and implicitly advocates fewer, such as getting out of the lives of the downtrodden in Iraq.

Andrew writes:

If the piece would have begun (and ended) with "How I Learned to Stop Loving Bombs" I could have been persuaded to agree with David.

No greater example that this has little to do with someone "changing" from a Republican than this passage:

Many people see the wider spectrum of reality because they grew up on the receiving end. As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, “No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man.”

It was institutional racism that kept him from being a General in the USMC?

Perhaps the author is correct. Our reality is built upon our individual perceptions.

Rick Martinez writes:

Respectfully, I think we all should be happy that Jeremiah has seen the light on behalf of "the poor among us" and "the problems of man", and "man as the problem." And, let's pray that he continues to see the light in whatever party he chooses to follow. Moreover, let's also pray if that party ever loses sight of that light, Jeremiah might try to fix the ills there--as opposed to leaving them. The age-old adage is new age today: If we are not willing to stand for something, we will surely fall for anything!

caltrek writes:

Perhaps you have heard these definitions before:

"A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged."

"A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested."

The first quote is pretty wide spread. The second observation was authored by myself.

One wonders if we would have felt so sympathetic to the youth Mr. Henderson questioned if the answer had been "breaking into your house."

David R. Henderson writes:

@caltrek,
One wonders if we would have felt so sympathetic to the youth Mr. Henderson questioned if the answer had been "breaking into your house."
Exactly. Which is why I asked her what she was tagged for.

caltrek writes:

So, a punishment designed for her own good to encourage her to stay in school is bad, but a punishment to protect your private property is good?

David R. Henderson writes:

@caltrek,
So, a punishment designed for her own good to encourage her to stay in school is bad, but a punishment to protect your private property is good?
Correct. And not just my private property, of course, but people’s private property in general. And you said it well: “a punishment,” not “any punishment.” If she had destroyed or stolen private property, it would be more just to have her do some kind of restitution to the victim. But, as you pointed out above, if there was any harm from her truancy, it was a harm she did to herself.

caltrek writes:

So, the rules and force of the collective are relied upon to protect the property rights of the individual?

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