INDIVIDUALISM: POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC

I recently finished rereading F.A. Hayek’s essay “Individualism: True and False”. In a past post I laid out my own political principles, and the first one I mentioned was individualism. This is a fundamental, and also a much misunderstood concept. In this post I want to use some of Hayek’s concepts (amongst others) to explain both what individualism is, and make an argument for it. One could write a book on this, but it being a blog post, abbreviation will be necessary.

One can make a distinction between the positive argument, what individualism is, and the normative argument, individualism ought to be the reigning political philosophy. I shall seek to address both if space should permit (as it is I’m running long on introductory material), but I shall focus primarily on what individualism is, and shall introduce normative arguments as well throughout the piece.

The best way to start addressing individualism is to start off by asking what individualism is not, that way we can arrive at our answer deductively. Individualism is not the atomistic individual standing outside of society, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. This indeed is something of a straw man (although there are individualists who would be more than happy to make this argument). The chief error in this line of thinking can be found long ago in the observation of Aristotle, that man is a social animal. Humans are, by nature, creatures that dwell in communities and spend their lives amongst others (exluding the occasional hermit, which is largely considered abnormal by society). Through the use of genetics, scientists have been able to determine that there have never been fewer than a few thousand Homo sapiens at any one point in time. Thus, it’s woven into our very nature to live socially.

Individualism is fully comfortable living socially in community with others. This is why we form voluntary associations. Freedom leaves us to join with others in common causes whatever it may be. It recognizes that the very fact that we are social animals means that we have to learn to live together and respect each other beliefs and differences. Toleration and a healthy pluralism result from true individualism. It allows individuals to work together to find the best ways of making society work best, without relying on top-down solutions.

Nor is Individualism man as homo economicus, living a purely Rational life. Humans are not purely economic entities acting always as consumers. People value lots of different aspects in life, only a part of which can be assessed in terms of cash value. Neither is the individual solely driven by Reason. I use a capital “R” because there is a philosophy still ongoing that believes that purely through reason man can design society and the institutions within it anew. Individuals are very limited in what they can actually know. The idea that a single individual, or even a group on individuals, could centrally plan an economy, or engage in successful social engineering, or put entirely new institutions on a continent like Africa where they never existed before and one can’t know all the particulars is absurd. These constraints upon us introduce a problem where all this individual knowledge needs to be coordinated over a massive scale, but this is a problem for another essay, where I can introduce Hayek’s concept of knowledge and prices.

True individualism recognizes the limits of every person (including elected officials). Recognizing these constraints, allows us to acknowledge the truth that we don’t know who knows whats best, which is why individualism allows individuals on their own, and within voluntary associations, to experiment and contribute their limited pieces of knowledge to the whole. This introduces us to the uncertainty that results from these limitations and the freedom that we have as individuals. Because of this new ideas and innovations emerge that would otherwise not in a society that was planned out and collectivized.

Another aspect of Individualism recognized freedom of conscience, bequeathed to us by the Christian tradition, that each individual is responsible to God for their conscience. This brings with it a need for pluralism and religious toleration. Individuals have different thoughts and beliefs, goals and desires. Individualism is the best method for securing this, for if individuals are free, they are also free in their communities (or voluntary associations), whereas if communities take priority over the individual, then while the community may be free the individual is not (and I’m not actually sure it make sense to say that a community can be free).

Milton Friedman rightly said in his book Capitalism and Freedom that “a society is merely an agreggation of individuals.” Societies/civilizations are complex systems where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts. One of the principles of complex system is that they emerge from the “bottom-up.” I don’t think this negates Milton Friedman’s statement. Rather it reminds us that all the various institutions of society are a result of human action, not of human design. The actions of many individuals, on their own and together, has brought about all societies in their various forms. Thus, it can be said truthfully, that individualism is baked into society. When people have tried to design societies anew (such as the French and Russian revolutions), these projects have been met with disaster.

THE RICH, EYES OF CAMELS, AND ANTI-CAPITALISM

This is my first post in a while. I kind of burnt myself out trying to publish stuff everyday, plus having a newborn leaves time for little else. Nevertheless, I am going to attempt to publish articles once a week, although I’m not making any promises. I’m hoping though that with a more spread out schedule, I can publish posts that are more well thought out, better argued, and more researched as necessary.

First though, a brief thought on free markets and the anti-capitalist straw man. This is particularly a fallacy you see in progressive Christianity, but you see it elsewhere as well. Conservative fundamentalists are just as guilty when they pull out Bible verses to support their own position as well. I came across a post recently where the writer made the argument that Jesus was anti-capitalist because of the passage that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. According to the writer, fundamentalists hate this passage because it undermines their support of the rich and capitalism, and their criticism of the poor as morally corrupt.

I don’t wish to touch how fundamentalists see the passage because many of them may see the poor as morally culpable for being poor. Such a view would be mistaken. But equally mistaken is the understanding put forward in the argument above. The argument is that capitalism is all about being pro-rich, and at the least indifferent to the plight of the poor. Assuming that capitalism can be used synonymously with free market for the purposes of the article. The free market however is completely indifferent to being rich and completely indifferent to being poor. If you want to really get to the crux of what the free market it, it is simply two or more people voluntarily exchanging goods for their mutual benefit. This assumes of course that no one would be making the exchange if they did not benefit somehow from the trade. This is almost an axiom in economics, if not a primary principle. Notice, though, that there is nothing about being rich or poor within this definition. Indeed, in the free market there is nothing inherently righteous or unrighteous about being rich or poor. Logically, these concepts are unconnected.

The context of this verse tells us how difficult it is to fully trust God when you cling so tightly to your possessions. This tells us nothing though about whether or not people should be allowed to voluntarily exchange their goods. However, what it does tell us about is the sloppy thinking of the author.

A PROJECT FOR THOUGHT

From the Libertarian Christians website:

To outline a proposal with such high aspirations is far beyond the scope of this article. My goals are much more modest than that. I hope to open a conversation about the compatibility of a theology whose inclinations are more “social” in nature with a political philosophy whose concerns are highly individualistic. Libertarians will want to know what happens to liberty when coupled with a theology that is not dedicated to individualism.

This is a project that I have been thinking about myself for a while now. As I am more individualistic in my politics and less so in my theology, I have spent time in thinking about how these go together. The Christian Faith is one rooted in community and has far reaching social implications. Libertarian political philosophy sees individual liberty as the primary political end of the polis. How these intersect and can be brought to bear on one another is an exciting challenge for libertarian Christians, and one I hope to pursue further, along with the author of this article.

STAR WARS IS BACK!

The second teaser trailer to The Force Awakens was released last week and I’m pretty sure everyone on the planet has seen it by now. It’s a fantastic trailer that tells us one main thing: Star Wars is back! It’s a very special trailer too since the music accompanying it was newly recorded by composer John Williams, who to me is one of the main reasons why Star Wars works. There are already some truly iconic shots we’ve seen just from this trailer, like the opening shot of the crashed Star Destroyer and the remains of Darth Vader’s mask, as well as some glimpses at new and old friends. I know there’s a lot of leaked information out there about this movie but it is great that the official marketing isn’t giving away the secrets and just giving us a glimpse at what to expect at the end of this year. We are just under eight months away from the release of The Force Awakens and I am very much looking forward to revisiting that wonderful universe. If I have a favorite film series, it’s Star Wars, and over the next several months I’ll be taking a look back and sharing my thoughts on each installment.

THE UNTOLD STORY OF THOMAS

All eleven disciples were gathered together in a small room. They had been in hiding now for a week, in complete reliance upon the women who provided for them, as only one or two of them could sneak out at any one time. Fear had gripped them when their Master was crucified, and, although they had seen him risen, they knew the authorities would take any one of them into custody if they were discovered.

In this scene we find Thomas, his head in his hands, piecing together everything that had just happened. His fellow disciples all claimed that they had seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion, but how could such a thing even be? Yes he had seen Jesus raise people from the dead, but he had been crucified! The Messiah was not supposed to be crucified. There was nothing in their scriptures referring to a dead messiah, but there was a reference to “he who is cursed who hangs on a tree.” Such a thing could not be possible, and he refused to believe it. It’s true, faith had never come easy for Thomas. He hadn’t actually been looking for any Messiah in particular. Yes he wanted to do away with the Romans, but he figured Israel would have to pull that off on their own. However, when Jesus called him to follow, he felt compelled to, almost like he couldn’t help but follow. Maybe there was something to this Messiah thing and Jesus was it. He saw the miracles, and heard the teachings. Still, he had a hard time comprehending it all. He tried to wrap his mind around everything, but could never quite make sense of it all.

So when Jesus was put to death, any reference point for understanding what was going on was shred to pieces. It was beyond devastating. He had given up everything to follow a charlatan. He was determined he would never be caught a fool again. His fellow disciples claimed that Jesus had appeared to them while Thomas had been out getting food, but he wasn’t going to buy it. Unless Jesus was standing there before him and he could place his hands on the wounds to his hands and feet and side, he would not believe it. People, don’t just come back from the dead. Whatever the miracles that had come before, they must have been a charade.

At an instant, the room became different. What at once seemed like a blinding light, went away as fast as it appeared, and there was Jesus. But how? The doors were locked! There was no way he could have gotten in. This had to be a trick, but there he was all the same. Jesus spoke. “Peace be with you,” he said with a most gentle voice. Turning to Thomas, he said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” A million things raced through Thomas’s mind as he stood there, looking at Jesus. At once he knew that all his doubts, all his attempts to comprehend Jesus, were for nothing. Jesus wasn’t a puzzle to be solved, but a person to trust in. Oh Jesus was a paradox, but he realized he could believe the paradox. This was faith he realized for the first time in his life, and he responded the only way he knew how. He bowed down, and said “My Lord and my God!”

THE INTERSECTION OF FAITH AND POLITICS OR LIVING IN A PLURALISTIC SOCIETY

The intersection of faith and politics is one fraught with difficulty in a pluralistic society such as ours. On the one hand, I have no wish to enforce my beliefs on others. On the other, my faith can’t help but influence my political thinking in many ways. And the thing is, this is true of people of all faiths, including those who are atheists. Everyone’s faith, to one extent or another, influences their politics and policy positions. The nature of the situation is that people of different faiths, can hold similar positions on the issues, even as they approach it from different perspectives. The same situation can also lead people of differing faiths to also have starkly different policy applications.

We have all heard the tired refrain, “I don’t want to push my morality on others,” or “don’t make me comply with your moral positions.” Usually this is in the context of controversial moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage. What’s interesting though is that the same person’s moral compass that suggests that abortion is wrong, could also lead them to want policies ending the death penalty, or policies that discourage or end human sex trafficking. Many democrats have said that climate change is a moral issue, as a reason to implement policies to fight global warming. Morality, in the context of justice, is often invoked for the war on terror. So, for instance, John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign, stated that he was personally opposed to abortion, but didn’t want to force his moral beliefs on others. Agree or disagree, fair enough for now. But then, in the next breath, he would say that global warming is the moral issue of our time. Arguably, that would be an example of him forcing his moral beliefs in legislation.

I want to make this point. Morality is being used in two different instances here. In the first instance, Mr. Kerry is saying that his own religious beliefs compel him to be personally opposed to abortion, but that he does not wish to push that on others. In the second, he is trying to use moral language to argue that we should pursue this given policy. Moral arguments can be very effective in trying to convince your audience of any given policy prescription. In other words, “If we don’t do x, then y is going to happen, which would be very bad, therefore, we should do x because it is the right thing to do.” This form of argument is used all the time. We could also use a familiar argument today to frame this.

a) Bigotry is wrong.
b) A baker that refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding, because he objects to gay marriage, is displaying bigotry.
d) We use legislation to protect people from bigotry.
c) Therefore, we should have a law that compels the baker to bake the cake so that the gay man or woman doesn’t have to suffer from the bakers bigotry.

This is entirely a moral argument on display here, and one that is typically used to advocate for certain legislation. (For the record, I think the second premise is questionable, but that is the argument made by many liberals.) This should show us that we all make arguments for policy from our own personal values. So the question of whether or not we should allow our faith and values to influence our political positions is a moot point.

There are some issues that more overtly spring from religious perspectives than others, though, such as abortion and gay marriage, and these are notable for their controversy. However, any of these other issues can spring from religious perspectives as well. It feels like we are back to square one, but not necessarily. I think the best way, in a pluralistic society, is to respect the convictions of others, and allow each other the freedom to have these convictions and live them out, especially when we ourselves don’t understand why people have the beliefs they do. A pluralistic society is the perfect place to allow ideas to compete in the marketplace and allow reason to have its way.

WIDESPREAD DISCRIMINATION

Article on Vox

In that way, the fight over Indiana’s law can only be so broad and so bitter because the stakes are quite low. If the stakes were higher — if the law really would lead to widespread discrimination against LGBT Americans — Republican Party elites wouldn’t touch it and the courts would probably destroy it. But the anger over the bill speaks to the fact that in many parts of the country, same-sex marriage is becoming law much faster than it’s becoming accepted.

The primary fight is no longer over whether gay marriage will be he law of the land. It’s how we can learn to live in a society with very divergent values.

THE CROSS IS THE DEVIL’S MOUSETRAP

Richard Beck on Christus Victor and the “cross as the devil’s mousetrap” mechanism for the atonement:

The idea goes like this as unpacked by various church fathers. From the beginning of Jesus’s ministry Satan tries to thwart Jesus. But failing to get Jesus to fall into sin Satan ultimately decides to kill Jesus, to just get rid of the guy. (Recall that Satan enters Judas’s heart suggesting that the death of Jesus is Satan’s idea and plan.) Satan, we know, eventually succeeds and Jesus is killed. Thus, Satan, who possesses the keys to Death and Hades, now “owns” Jesus and has him locked up in Hades.

Satan has taken the cheese.

However, what Satan doesn’t know is that Jesus isn’t just another human being. Jesus is God Incarnate. In this Jesus is sort of like a Trojan Horse. So when Satan takes Jesus to Hades–Surprise!–he finds that the enemy has entered the gates. There in hell Jesus takes the keys of Death and Hades from Satan, binds him, and then releases the captives. In Christian theology this is called the Harrowing of Hell.

The mousetrap snaps.

PRAYERS FOR HOLY SATURDAY

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/04/04/holy-saturday-prayers/#ixzz3WNRuTpl5

ECONOMIC GROWTH VS FOREIGN AID

“Moyo argues that economic growth is the most important factor in reducing worldwide poverty. Prosperity will create a middle class that stabilizes the country, as citizens demand a say in how they’re governed. Thus, the first steps in the development of a healthy state are not the establishment of accountable governments, transparent legal systems and more overall freedom, in her opinion. “Economic growth is the prerequisite for a liberal democracy, not the other way around.” For example, in her home continent, Africa, Botswana originally one of the poorest countries is now one of the fastest growing economies, the least corrupt country in Africa, that has little foreign aid, and has a high level of economic freedom compared to other African countries.”

Economic growth is the most effective alleviation of poverty. Much more so than redistributionary policies. And foreign aid too often ends up in the hands of tyrants.

http://blog.keirsey.com/2015/04/03/a-honest-disagreement-about-the-future/