Part The Last

Individualism--choices limited by society--co-operation a law of life--what is "harm"?--the end

The sixth and last principle [info]earth_wizard observes in conservatism goes thuswise: "Finally, conservatives believe in individualism. As Barry Goldwater explains, 'Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices he must make: they cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings.'"

And for a single human being on a desert island, that works perfectly well. I imagine it would work quite well in a libertarian society as well, where nobody has to care about what anyone else does as long as they can't get through the barbed wire.

In practice, in the real world, the choices that govern our lives are hedged about and limited by the choices of every other person whose life impacts on ours. If someone else has the job I want, I cannot choose to take it. If somebody else nabs my parking space, I cannot choose to occupy it. If someone tries to occupy my parking space at the same time as me, I cannot choose to drive home, because I no longer have a functioning vehicle.

Within the bounds of the choices we are allowed, yes, by all means we must choose, and so it should be. And then we have another layer of choice above that, a meta-choice if you will; to choose as if we were the only people who mattered, or to choose with reference to the wishes and needs of others. Some may choose to see the latter path as "allowing our choices to be made by other human beings"; others may see it as "being kind."

The former path is the broad, straight road to success and wealth. The latter is more difficult, and may in some cases lead to resentment. Some people see others trampling over all in their way and attaining the good life as a result, and they become bitter because their own basically benevolent nature, or possibly their upbringing, does not allow them to do the same. They may let off steam by talking up the selfish path as though they agreed with it; but they give themselves away, because the people who practice selfishness seldom talk about it, but prefer to hide behind phrases such as "freedom of choice," "market forces" and "dealing in hard facts."

These are the decisions that individuals make. They have nothing to do with the way a society should be run.

John Ruskin said "Government and co-operation are the laws of life; anarchy and competition are the laws of death." Society (if we contradict Margaret Thatcher and assume that there is such a thing), if it is to work at all, must be founded on co-operation; on individuals, remaining individuals, but working together to build something that works. Co-operation, if it is to work at all, can only be based on equality, on the recognition that we all have equal rights, responsibilities, choices and duties; co-operation between unequals leads to condescension and resentment on the side of the "haves," and humiliation and resentment on the side of the "have-nots," and resentment is corrosive to co-operation.

It is, of course, possible for a society to be inimical to individualism, to seek to stamp it out and force conformity on everyone. This has happened in both liberal and conservative societies, and wherever it happens it is wrong. (One thinks of thousands of mass-produced tee-shirts, all bearing the slogan "Stand out from the crowd.") Within the bounds of society, as long as nobody is harmed, everyone has a right to be their own person and make their own choices. Most conservatives would agree with that, I think.

But what is "harm"? How serious does harm have to be before it is acknowledged? And perhaps more importantly, are we talking about mere harm to another individual, or harm to every single member of society?

Some who sail (possibly falsely) under conservative colours claim that every single member of society is harmed if someone marries someone else of the same sex, or if a woman claims the right to not be pregnant. Their belief in individualism stops short of these choices. Some of them claim that not to be blindly supportive of the society in which they live makes one an enemy of that society. Their belief in individualism stops even shorter.

I say that (for instance) every single member of society is harmed if one individual possesses an amount of money sufficient to support a hundred or a thousand such individuals, and does so on the backs of several hundred or several thousand who do not each have enough to support themselves. I say that every single member of society is harmed if the education available to someone on a minimum wage is not as good as the education available to someone who can afford to pay for the best. I say that every single member of society is harmed if people on low incomes cannot obtain medical care when they need it. I say that every single member of society is harmed if one child lives in poverty for the want of the cost of one bomb or one gun used in an unnecessary and unjust war. These are the ways in which the choices of a few individuals limit, restrict, reduce to nothing the choices available to the majority. And my belief in individualism stops right there. These are the very evils that democracy is supposed to combat, the evils that came with aristocracy and monarchy and class distinction; and we have perpetuated them and allowed them to thrive, not on the harmlessly fictitious basis that one bloodline is better than another, but on the far more toxic truism that "whoever has the gold makes the rules."

Society pays for the things that everyone needs, and funds them from contributions made by everybody. The less is contributed, the less society can pay for. The more is contributed, the closer we can get, not to freedom of choice, but to equality of choice; so that the choice is not between a good school and a bad school, but between two good schools; so that the choice is not between the right treatment and a quack nostrum, but between two right treatments; so that the choice is not to take a lousy job or starve, but to take a good job or survive.

And thus we come to the end. If you've made it this far, congratulations on your stamina. I would like to extend my thanks once again to [info]earth_wizard, who kindly allowed me to quote his definitions, and to everyone who commented on these wibblings when they appeared in my LiveJournal. Every comment helped me to clarify my thinking, and make me more of a considered, and less of a knee-jerk, liberal. Thank you.