Is Individualism Compatible with Democratic Strains of Thinking?
A divisive politics is not necessarily a dysfunctional politics. Life is individualistic; an individual’s experiences are filtered through the lens of his or her own person. Personality, past experiences, values and desired ends: all of these create nuances in the rational process. The conclusions around which individuals orient their lives are moved by the substance of their lives, despite the absolute nature of reality.
Two important codicils can be drawn from this:
First, any politics that respects the inviolability of the individual — so long as it reflects substantive differences in points of view — will necessarily be fractious.
Second, any political system the respects the inviolability of the individual will inevitably conflate the personal with the political.
Respect for the individual is an unqualified good. Freedom of conscience — defined best as the intellectual capacity to make judgments for oneself — requires respecting the ability of others to do the same, even if their conclusions clash violently with one’s own. Self-interest inherently contains limitations: it requires recognizing that one’s own good is inescapably tied to the material world and one’s security depends in some part in cultivating the respect of one’s fellows. Life in a small community is made measurably worse if an individual offends the people upon whom he relies for the procurement of the basic necessities of life.
Implicit in this mode of living is the idea of freedom of association. The natural order contains its own innate code of retributive justice: offense leads to refusal of service. In the medium of exchange, this works both ways: a consumer may refuse to patronize a producer whose personal values and ways of doing business offends him and a producer may do exactly the same. All actors are empowered.
Freedom of association walks the line between the individual and the absolute nature of reality. It accommodates personal choice and the choices of others by allowing competing ideas and choices to coexist, without requiring that one support another. An exponential number of personal moral hierarchies thrive.
Politics, once it enters the formal structure of government, tends to lose this nuance.
Individuals tend to parlay societal events into existential terms, gauging the good of a public policy by its likely effect on their interests. In the pluralistic sphere of the private world, where freedom of association leads to the development of a natural and mutually-volition order, this is not concerning, as each individual uses his or her reason to gauge how best to respond to the broader world. Division, though it thrives, ultimately respects the autonomy of individual choices.
The formalized political system does not do the same. Democratic epistemology pays lip service to the autonomy of the individual, but the structures it utilizes ultimately require imposing one system of values over another. This is true regardless of whether the government in question is more authoritarian or more authentically democratic.
In an open society, citizens play a crucial role in the political process. They are spokespeople for their own interests and are responsible for conveying their unique perspective on how truth has been made manifest in their own lives. Those who, in any way, shape or form, represent those interests must navigate the quagmire of the personal and the objective: Are all individuals to be accepted without question as honest brokers? If they are not, what standard of adjudication can be found that retains respect for the inviolability of the individual?
Public action necessitates action. And action necessitates choice. The private sphere has no overarching moral axis, but an untold number of coexisting axes, all oriented around the pole of an individual’s singular interests. The action required of political bodies cannot be so detached. Someone in authority must make a decision about where the good lies. But this requires imposing one person’s will over another: either the interests expressed by one constituency group or the rank greed of the politician masquerading as the interests of a particular constituency group.
Real tolerance is impossible in political bodies. Even if all citizens are taken at their words and the needs they relay to government are taken as genuine, someone’s interests must be given priority if policy is to be effective and goal-oriented, as is all useful private action. This necessarily means one group’s interests are buoyed above others by any policy that looks to advance citizens’ interests, creating a de facto hierarchy that, even if it is not universally or permanently enforced (as the group given priority likely changes over time), nevertheless invalidates the idea of individual violability. Rights are endemic to the individual as a matter of his or her unique creation. The distinctive nature of being makes it impossible for anyone to truly understand the constitution of another. It is from this uniqueness that the idea of equally-held and inviolable rights springs.
But the hierarchy that inevitably rises from goal-oriented policy violates this. It gives greater legitimacy to one viewpoint than another by championing a particular set of interests. Its support for a cause is a ringing endorsement of its legitimacy, much in the same way that a consumer’s decision to purchase a good from a particular business is an endorsement of that business’s core values. But political actors lack the same freedom of association as do private economic actors. The force of law compels all political actors to accept the truth of a certain set of values.
Individuals see the world through the lens of their own survival. This is as it should be. Politicians, desirous of respecting the sovereignty of individuals and their interests, take this at face value. This is also as it should be, at least on a philosophical level. Its effects, however, which lead to a politics that attempts to empathize with and alleviate grievances, however, actually does more harm than good to individual sovereignty.
The alternative, seemingly, would be to encourage political actors to take a more appraising look at the content of their constituents’ interests: to look more to the objective reality of society, to proposed policies and their likely impact on various groups. But here the same issue rears its ugly head: this is no more respective of individual rights than is a more hand-off approach to representation.
A politics that operates on the basis of discretion, that allows government officials to be circumspect in determining the good of public policy, is authoritarian. It casts inherent suspicion upon the credibility of the people, who are the real wellspring of government power. It also threatens to give cover to politicians who use their unilateral powers to make value-judgments as an excuse to pursue their own interests. A government with powers of judgment is a living, breathing organism, like any other. It will fall under the power of the natural order and look to its own interests any time it comes under threat. Given the power disparity between citizens — whose control of just political power is theoretical — and government — whose control of just political power is material — this is a possibility that can only end badly for citizens.
There is, then, seemingly no political system that can protect individual rights in the long-term. The individualistic nature of life seems to be incompatible with government, which can mimic an individualistic organism, but not without creating a power imbalance that poses a grave threat to citizens. Freedom of association is necessary to creating a balance of power that both empowers freedom of association and demands respect. There is a clearly delineated system of cause-and-effect in the exchanges that come to shape society. While this can be simulated within certain government bodies, such as the legislature, it is impossible for government as a whole to walk this line. If action is to occur, one viewpoint must eventually win out. A functional government is certainly an unqualified good in certain respects, but it nevertheless holds grim implications for the concept of rights.
Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.