Has the Freedom Philosophy been TOO successful?

Sunni's picture

I ask the question with solemn seriousness. No, I haven’t been smoking or otherwise ingesting anything to make my brain go wonky. I have actually been thinking about the issue—from a very different context—for some time now, and trying to find a way to gather my thoughts for presentation here. I’ve not yet accomplished that, but a news article I just read crystallized the above question out of my mind.

The article, The Damage of Card Rewards, is plenty thought–provoking on its own. It’s a quote from philosophy instructor Dave Hanson on the second page that slipped my mind into questioning individualism:

The sad fact of contemporary American economic culture is atomistic individualism. Anything else is decried as communism.

My immediate response was to attempt to form a protest, but a picosecond later, I realized that Mr. Hanson had drilled deeply into much of my discontent of late with the freedom movement. Divided we stand, far too often; and so divided we easily fall—and too many times we fall because we divide ourselves. I have been as strident as many others who love liberty in deriding public policy ideas as communism and/or socialism, but I hope that in so doing I have been clear and consistent on one thing: my objection is lasered on coerced payments and choices.

While I have felt myself to be outside mainstream America both culturally and politically for a long time, I have only intermittently (and briefly) felt myself to be inside any sort of community in the freedom movement. I have rambled on this subject too much already, so let me just reiterate that I know I am responsible for some measure of my lack of fulfillment there. (Ironic as it may seem, I felt a stronger sense of voluntary community after just a few weeks at my dojo than I have in the freedom community—something I plan to explore here at some point not soon.) Yet I still long for a freedom–focused community based on frith ... while thinking that many of my potential cohorts take a dim view of the term “community”. It does have its six first letters in common with that dreaded ideology mentioned earlier, after all. Lest anyone think I’m kidding or being overly harsh, have you ever asked yourself why so many pro–freedom communities choose to call themselves a “gulch” rather than a community? Perhaps Ayn Rand chose that word deliberately, viewing any term linguistically tied to communism darkly.

A friend shared with me his opinion that ideology may well be the curse of the 20th century. The more I think about it the more inclined I am to agree. We are all individuals [okay, stop that inane chanting right now!], but we are also all part of various groups. Some of them are involuntary, but many are not ... and I think it is an extremely rare individual who truly wants absolutely no contact with any other human for the remainder of his life. (We may argue about such a person’s “mental health status” some other day.) While I cherish my freedom deeply, I do not like the thought of a society based on “atomistic individualism” ... and in fact, I see that perspective as partly culpable in some of America’s current social and political problems.

If I’m right about Rand, perhaps her silly skittishness has been unwittingly passed to many lovers of liberty over the years. I don’t doubt that some came to the same end on their own—it doesn’t take a towering intellect, after all, to notice relations among words. Yet it doesn’t do much to recommend a person’s acumen if his thinking does indeed run along such lines. Everything “social–” ≠ socialism; and similarly, everything “commun–” ≠ communism. We are social animals. Liberty and community can peacefully and happily coexist. I can’t be the only pro–freedom person who sees problems with atomistic individualism ... can I?

How is it that you almost always know what I'm thinking?

I just started reading Tom Palmer's book, Realizing Freedom. I was ready to start the part in Chapter 3 (Myths of Individualism) dealing with... Atomistic Indivdualism, when I first decided to look at your blog. Like you, Palmer is skeptical of the claim that libertarians are totally opposed to community and shared values and are only atomistic individuals. I'll have to finish the chapter and let you know the rest.


That’s an interesting coincidence, H.C. I’m interested in your take on the chapter.

We've Lost that Frithful Feeling

Sunni, I followed your link to your earlier post on frith and found more layers there than I had before. The challenges here are legion but I think you're right that the freedom community (or freedom-lovers who care about community) need to work through those challenges to come out surviving and thriving on the other side. (The other side of what, you ask? I'm not quite sure...) I'm a bit blitzed right now from working too hard, so my thoughts mightn't be very coherent, but here are a few of the challenges I see:

Challenge #1 is the dedication to ideas over individuals that you have identified. Whether someone's dedication to liberty started with Rand or Rothbard or Friedman or Mises or Heinlein or some other writer, too often that person's commitment is (false dichotomy alert!) more intellectual than human.

Challenge #2 is that we don't have strong communities of liberty, or traditions of something more tribely, in which to enculturate those who care about freedom. This reinforces challenge #1 in a kind of libertarian death-spiral (those who are attracted to liberty in a more tribely sense don't have anyplace to go, whereas those who stick around the liberty "movement" are by nature more intellectualistic and atomistic).

Challenge #3 is that building real-world communities or gulches can be positively dangerous because it makes those folks a tempting target (just ask the Branch Davidians). The solution might be less the kind of compounds that many associate with intentional communities and more the kind of dispersed locale or region that one might find in certain parts of Wyoming or New Hampshire (or Costa Rica or...?).

Challenge #4 is that people of liberty are dispersed, and they can't or won't all migrate to certain locales where in-person communities can form. Can we perhaps weave a wider fabric of interconnected frithsteads, localized friend networks, families, and individuals using some of the more recent Internet technologies (but without the privacy-smashing aspects of sites like Facebook)?

Challenge #5 is that anytime you put humans together, you get cliques, in groups and out groups, spats, fights, disagreements, misunderstandings, ostracism, and the like. Even if we can build online or local communities, we'll still have these negative interactions, and we'll need to learn how to work through them.

Challenge #6 is that any loose "frithnet" (ooo, I like that term!) will have difficulty scaling up to a large number of people (it's simple cognitive and social psychology, search online for mentions of "Dunbar's number").

Challenge #7 is that even if we were to work though all the foregoing challenges and achieve some modicum of success (defined as strong networks, high-trust interactions, and the growth of completely voluntary structures for work, love, friendship, trade, dispute-resolution, festivals, and all the other aspects of life that humans have valued for millennia), you can bet that those who feel threatened by alternative sources of power in society would try to infiltrate or destroy the frithnets as fast as possible. If you've found something that works, it's impossible to keep it under the radar forever. I shudder to think of the consequences -- but I also shudder to think of the consequences of not building voluntary networks of the kind you've outlined.

Gosh, that's a lot of challenges, isn't it? And I'm sure there are more. But we won't know unless we try...

"Survival" also confuses the issue

Sunni, the "freedom philosophy" may have confused the issue somewhat, but I think the necessity for survival also had a hand in it.

We _are_ social animals, but, as humans, we are capable of functioning alone. Our human brain, with language and tool-making skills and lacking instinct, must think alone and compels us to act alone at times without guidance from other humans. (Like Ayla in "The Clan of the Cave Bear" we see what must be done, and we do it... we know what we are capable of and want to try it -- whether others are capable or not.) And, as moral individuals -- i.e. people who have learned the "right" and "wrong" of interaction, as well as coping with reality -- libertarians recognize the responsibility of taking care of themselves. All this has led to a certain amount of anti-socialism.

Rand had her gulch, but it was filled with like-minded people who were willing and able to work together, or alone (in or out of their gulch) when necessary. The majority of us are NOT Galts, NOT Taggarts, NOT Francisco d'Anconias -- we are simply trying to live in bad times, aware of what's coming and unable to stop it. We often confuse coping with living, and too frequently confuse survivalism with individualism.

If we MUST live alone, we can, though it wouldn't be easy or pleasant. I think, like you, the word "gulch" is misleading; it reminds us too often of survivalism. (It was not Galt's first choice, either, to live in a gulch.) I think we *should* begin to think more positively about what a "community" can do for us.

And there's a lot of wisdom in what TheSaint says; it calls for some old-fashioned think-time.

Very interesting points.

Thanks to both of you, Pat and Saint—you’ve both given me much more to think about. I am intimately familiar with the coping vs. living issue, but hadn’t even thought about survivalism vs. individualism. We also can take fiction as a workable vision, and often the result is disappointment, as Mama remarked.

All the same, I don’t see libertarians taking care of themselves as antisocial—or are you meaning “against socialism”? The various forms of words can get tricky ... Anyway, the relationship aspects may or may not be the most challenging—for some they will be, but for others, being too intellectual about their choices could be catastrophic. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

From society's POV

[quote]All the same, I don’t see libertarians taking care of themselves as antisocial—or are you meaning “against socialism”? The various forms of words can get tricky ...[unquote]

Sorry, "anti-social" is the wrong word here; libertarians are certainly not anti-social in the psychological sense, nor did I mean "against socialism." But they do by-and-large, being independent and individualistic thinkers, tend to go off in different directions from the bulk of society -- in their beliefs, their reaction to events, and their solution to problems. And "anti-social" (or anti-everything!) is how they're often perceived by the mainstream.


I occasionally encounter people, usually singles or small families, who think they can, should, even MUST find some property way out yonder and go live there totally "self sufficient." This is an extreme of what you're talking about here, of course, but can be a good example of it.

Very few actually even try it. Those few that I know who have done so are very quickly disabused of the notion and, usually, become productive members of our extremely loose and totally voluntary efforts toward community for mutual trade and defense.

Since we have no formal organization or hierarchy and are strictly non political, we have so far avoided most of the pitfalls and infiltration attempts. I'm sure it is terribly frustrating to our would be masters. [big grin]

Your points are spot on, Saint. So far, it's working out well here in Wyoming. I don't think many of us have any confusion over voluntary vs coerced "community."

Good community is enriching

I have been a happy part of several different communities, and as long as "joining" was consensual and revokable I never even questioned it.

If people want to form a completely communistic enclave, it is no concern of mine as long as they force no one to participate. If that's what makes them happy, who am I to tell them they shouldn't do that?

Being the way I am, if I were forced to join a community, even one I might otherwise like, I will resist the coercion tooth and knife.

Another thing: I have never bought into being told I am a part of a community by others. If I don't "feel it", it just ain't reality. This smells like "patriotism" to me.

Maybe people don't really understand "individualism" if they think it means you never need or want community. Even the mountainmen of old enjoyed sharing a campfire with friends, and the annual Rondy-voo, as well as looking forward to the supply trains (the original Walmarts- full of crap ;) ) I can survive on my own; it is just more pleasant (sometimes) to have good company who has compatible goals.

Contrarian thought: "community" is a fiction

Just experimenting with an idea here -- I haven't decided whether I believe this:

There's no such thing as a community. There is only a network of interactions between pairs of individuals.

Any two individuals might have a number of things that bind them together: shared values (of a zillion possible sorts), living near each other, speaking the same language, willingness to help each other out during an emergency, shared interests/careers/hobbies, family ties, membership in the same Internet forums... etc.

Take a whole lot of colored pencils and draw a multicolored line between two names on a big piece of paper, the amount of each color proportional to the corresponding tie between the people. Repeat for all 6+ billion people on the planet.

That's the reality. The fiction comes in when someone looks at the big piece of paper, observes a wad of individuals who all have lots of chartreuse and cyan and a little indigo in the lines connecting them, draws a dotted line around these names, and declares "Look! A community!"

At which point everyone starts to argue about where the dotted line goes, so they can declare their community to really be much much bigger than it appeared, or (more likely) to throw out the people they don't want inside the dotted line with them.

This thought needs more development, but laundry and dinner-making must take priority first. :-)

So what DO you call it?

(I'm not arguing the point, I'm trying to think through it.)

I question "gulch", you question "community", and we may both be right -- or wrong. "Society" doesn't tell us anything, and "tribe" may be too confining a word, both in intent and for future growth. Perhaps "network" is a better term for what we (or Sunni) are after.

Another issue both you and Saint mentioned/implied is the possibility of who runs it and how to get along. I don't see this as a problem if we do our homwwork and mind our own business. We're supposed to be intelligent and rational libertarians/anarchists in this community, and we'd all be setting up ANY enclave with a similar idea in mind -- namely to live and work freely and independently, and without coercion. Surely we will be trying harder to maintain these goals than most societies that "just grow."

Not network

To me, “network” has connotations that are drier and more focused than what I seek: networks have a specific context (work, a hobby) and while friendships may spring up, they tend to focus on that context, too.

And Pat, I adore your response regarding running things. Minding one’s own business can be the most maddeningly difficult thing in the world, but it is also most valuable because of its rarity. Even spouses require some privacy from each other.


To me, “network” has connotations that are drier and more focused than what I seek: networks have a specific context (work, a hobby) and while friendships may spring up, they tend to focus on that context, too.

Yeah, "network" is rather dry. I think of a network as more applicable to communications between communities, rather than within a given community, and that's what I was referring to.
I also like the idea of an "agora", but the word itself is rather awkward. Maybe we should just stick with "community."

[Edited by Sunni to make the blockquote work]

Contra your contrarianism

I understand your point, I think, Mr. Bill, and it is a valid one. “Community” is often an abstract construct that is grander and prettier than the reality the term is used to label. It is often taken to be static, when it is in fact quite dynamic (naturally, anyway).

There is only a network of interactions between pairs of individuals.

I don’t think so. There can be meta levels of interactions; and sometimes they can mesh and flow well, while other times they can be so problematic as to bring about the end of a strong friendship. Surely you’ve seen instances of this in play ... e.g., a person who despises his beloved’s best friend from college.


You went and messed up my oversimplification. :-)

Yup, the meta-interactions do confuse the issue. I think it was Robert Anton Wilson who said (possibly quoting someone else) that once you get up to five people, there are so many interactions and meta-interactions possible that it is beyond the capacity of the human mind to grasp all at once.

So maybe this explains why we need an abstraction like "community" to cope with the interactions among large groups. It lets us have some idea of what to expect of people, and what they expect of us, without anyone really knowing what everyone else is thinking.

This makes sense to me. I think of the couple next door as part of my personal community. We sit and chat a couple of times a year; we help each other out during minor emergencies. But if I wanted to, I could start probing and perhaps find something really unappealing about them. For all I know, they could be white separatists, or communists, or cat-eaters! Yuck! So maintaining our little community depends to some extent on ignorance.

And in addition... Well, there's lots to think about here, and I haven't got it clear in my head. Seems like the biggest issue for individualists is that a community puts pressure on its members to think and act in particular ways. This gets complicated, because that sort of pressure isn't necessarily bad... [Brain too muddled, must consume pizza before continuing.]


[Pizza was good.] :-)

Regarding Pat's comment about "who runs it and how to get along"... I'd hope that liberty-oriented people would be trying to avoid outright coercion in their communities. I think we've all seen cases (especially online) of "my private property, my rules", which may be morally justified but can still be destructive to a community.

Beyond that, though, the community still exerts a social pressure to conform. That's cool if it's a pressure to respect property rights and not murder people, but usually it expands into other areas. And I think that's what makes individualists twitchy. I always feel like I need to hide lots of things about myself, in areas where I have not adopted the community norms. And so I always feel like I'm on the fringes of any community in which I'm participating.

Good Points!

And both points overlap. We've been so overwhelmed by Rand's ideal (and whether we come to libertarianism through Rand or not, she _has_ slipped into the definition), that we often prefer to reveal more about ourselves to mainstream communities we live in than to other libertarians.

This is where a little less expectation and a little more focus might benefit us all. No one is perfect, and no one needs to be. In disagreements, we just need to keep our minds on the goal. Power struggles occur when the "how" becomes more important than the "why". Freedom and independence are waiting for us to get over the ego trip.

Great observation

Freedom and independence are waiting for us to get over the ego trip.

You are spot on, Pat. Your words will appear over in the quotations area sometime soon, too.

Further evidence?

Hi Sunni, here's a recent academic paper of interest: http://www.physorg.com/news183813534.html.

Conclusion: "happiness comes from having firmly held beliefs and being around people who affirm those beliefs."

I haven't read the paper yet but figured I'd pass it along in the interest of building frith. :)


Your conclusion has set off another cluster of thoughts for me to explore, but that must needs wait for another day. I’ll read the paper; thanks very much for bringing it to our attention.

I solved it by redefining society! :)

A Map Of Mankind

...or, IMO, properly defining society.

Hope all is well.:)