Individualism and Society: A Response to Peter Corning

It is often said of libertarians that we are radical individualists. Indeed, I have heard critics say things like, “I reject libertarianism because I believe in society.” President Obama famously declared that if you have a successful enterprise, “You didn’t build that — somebody else made that happen.” In a 2011 article at Psychology Today, Dr. Peter Corning declared that “[libertarianism’s] models of human nature and society are terminally deficient.”

The basis of these criticisms is that humans are interdependent beings — that people would not be able to survive without the help of others. I have no reason to dispute that, of course, but to jump to the conclusion that libertarians believe otherwise reveals that the author does not understand the basis and implications of libertarian philosophy.

In a previous article, I provided an economic rebuttal to the follies underlying the “You didn’t build that” argument, using a hypothetical pizza restaurant for illustration. In this post, I will mostly stick to philosophy. In particular, I will deal with Dr. Corning’s article, as it is the most detailed criticism of libertarianism from this angle. He begins:

Who can object to the libertarian principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility, and the right to hold property — at least in the abstract?  The problem is that the real world is never “abstract.”  All philosophies must ultimately confront reality…

Libertarianism is, at its core, a rejection of the undue use of force by one person against another (or his property). A multitude of viewpoints concerned with social organization are perfectly compatible with that. Libertarianism allows us to decide how best to confront the realities that we face.

I recall watching an interview of a libertarian visiting Occupy Wall Street, where he said that he was able to win anarcho-syndicalist allies by explaining to them that syndicals and worker cooperatives would be allowed to thrive unimpeded in a libertarian world. Even Marxists could establish communes if they please.

In “Obstacle and Cause,” the second chapter of Frédéric Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms, Bastiat explains the natural reason for the division of labor: to remove the obstacles to human thriving most efficiently. Bastiat, and those who follow in his tradition (myself included), have written countless books and articles demonstrating logically how free exchange maximizes the removal of the obstacles we face, and how the supposedly necessary government steering of the economy always inhibits this process in ways that are invisible to the untrained eye. To say that we are not confronting reality, Dr. Corning seems to be overlooking quite a bit of reality himself.

Okay, so he does briefly address, only to dismiss, the libertarian defenses of free markets, per Robert Nozick, John Locke, and Adam Smith:

A line from libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s path-breaking book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, says it all: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group [or state] may do to them without violating their rights.” (When asked to specify what those rights are, libertarians often cite philosopher John Locke’s mantra “life, liberty, and property.”)  Not to worry, though.  Through the “magic” of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the efficient pursuit of our self interests in “free markets” will ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. 

One problem with this (utopian) model is we now have overwhelming evidence that the individualistic, acquisitive, selfish-gene model of human nature is seriously deficient; it is simplistic, one-sided and in reality resembles the pathological extremes among the personality traits that we find in our society.

I’ve often said (and I’m sure I’m not the first) that pointing out inefficiencies in voluntary human action is not enough to justify interventionism and statism. One must also explain how the intervention and statism are likely to do a better job than the voluntary human action. Dr. Corning never does this. He doesn’t even provide a citation for the “overwhelming evidence” he claims exists. Instead, he continues to claim, “The evidence about human evolution indicates that our species evolved in small, close-knit social groups in which cooperation and sharing overrode our individual, competitive self-interests for the sake of the common good.” Going back to what I said earlier, libertarianism allows for a host of different models of social organization. As far as sharing and cooperation are mutually beneficial, they will happen in a libertarian world.

Corning later continues:

The benign free market model of society is equally deficient.  Many libertarians seem to be myopic about the prevalence of self-interested “organizations” in the marketplace, from the many millions of mom-and-pop businesses with only a few employees to mega-corporations with hundreds of thousands of workers (whose freedom they may severely restrict). These “corporate interests” sometimes oppose the common interest and perpetrate malfeasance. (Do we need to rehearse the recent examples of Enron, Capital Management, Countrywide, Goldman Sachs, BP, Massey Energy and other disasters?)  So-called free markets are routinely distorted by the wealthy and powerful, and the libertarians’ crusade for lower taxes, less regulation and less government plays into their hands.  Perhaps unwittingly, anti-government libertarians would have us trade democratic self-government for an oligarchy.

First of all, it we are not myopic. Free-market capitalism takes advantage of self-interest by allowing the most self-interested human efforts to create the most wealth (which can effectively be defined as the ability to overcome what Bastiat called “obstacles”) for all of mankind. Concerning the abuses and crimes of mega-corporations, I’m afraid that these are more detrimental than beneficial to Dr. Corning’s argument. These problems occurred under the watchful eye of the state, and the state legendarily mishandled them.

In a previous blog post in defense of libertarianism, I covered crime and punishment (If you wish to read more about libertarian justice, look at the two works by Dr. Stephan Kinsella which I cited in that post.). Also, expect an article on corporate fraud and abuses of power (oligarchy) in the near future, as it is one of my favorite topics.

In between his criticisms of markets, Dr. Corning mentions “the libertarian novelist Ayn Rand.” I cannot express how frustrated the conflation of Rand’s objectivism with libertarianism makes me. Rand was, admittedly, not a libertarian. She developed her own ethical philosophy which exalts the pursuit of self-interest and demonizes self-sacrifice. Libertarianism itself does not favor either pursuit, and individual libertarians hold incredibly diverse opinions on the morality of both. Objectivists even go so far as to support the violent takeover of primitive cultures by “Western civilization,” something libertarians wholeheartedly condemn.

I’ll stop here. The rest of Dr. Corning’s article is more of what I’ve already been over, and this is getting a bit long. I hope to have some elaborations coming soon, as well as discussions of issues like nationalism and property (including concerns brought up by Dr. Corning about whether libertarian property is fair). If you have questions, please leave them in the comments and I will try to answer them as quickly as possible.

Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL.

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