The Hilarious Unintended Consequences of Naked Individualism

October 15, 2010

I like Tim Worstall’s blog; partly from a sense of lefty guilt at the dreadful business of taking money from people and calling it ‘taxation’, but mostly because it provides very snappy high-level analysis and is funny while doing it. A case in point is today’s post on the liberal-lefty reaction to people purposefully flouting a phosphate soap ban in Washington state; Tim points out that it had the unintended consequence of people smuggling in phosphate soaps from out of state, with all the environmental impacts inherent therein – more petrol used and so on. Cue lefty outrage at these dreadful people subverting a moral principle.

This makes a post by Charlotte Gore, also today, especially hilarious. She’s taking aim at the sense of entitlement displayed by many lefties and poor people with regard to public services, and arguing that it makes no sense to her that they would think it’s fine to just take other people’s money to service their own lives. But why would a libertarian find it surprising that if you promote selfishness, greed and individualism, people would become more selfish, greedy and individualistic, and care significantly less about the impact of their actions on other people? It’s almost as though moral principles about not harming other people aren’t separate from from moral principles about actively caring for other people, and if you get rid of one you lose the other too. Cue rightey outrage at these dreadful people subverting a moral principle.

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10 Responses to “The Hilarious Unintended Consequences of Naked Individualism”

  1. Yet we live in a society structured around selflessness, generosity and collectivism. We have a welfare state. How does that encourage selfishness, greed and individualism and more importantly why aren’t the results so wonderful that no-one could ever argue that that was anything wrong with the way we do things?

    • declineofthelogos said

      Our society is structured around selflessness, generosity and collectivism…? You could’ve fooled me. Last time I checked we don’t live in some sort of glorious Scandinavian republic of brother-love, and a simply having a welfare state doesn’t mean we’re moving towards one. When was the last time the Government (aside from the current one) made a moral pronouncement along those lines? Conversely, has any Government since Thatcher actually tried to claim that her version of individualism was wrong? Even Labour’s attempts at enhancing welfare tended to be disguised behind their protestations of being in favour of the filthy rich.

      This is actually beside the point, in any case. The non-aggression principle in libertarianism is an odd outlier; an ideology that champions competition seeks to shut off a form of competition it doesn’t like. In this sense, it’s the mirror image of socialism. Neither work in the real world – people will always want to compete for both power (i.e. access to force) and money. Trying to shut down mankind’s competitive urge in either direction will have unintended consequences, as the two examples given above demonstrate.

      • I think you have a point in as far as Libertarianism as commonly understood goes; it’s a clsuterfuck in its current form. But it ignores that Ayn Rand’s example is but one extreme example, and isn’t even libertarian, by her own confession. Not all libertarianism is that way. Myself, I’m entirely individualist, but hold that the natural way individuals interact is cooperatively, and that they can be- and often are- altruistic.

        When it comes to “individualism and greed” vs “collectivism and altruism”, that’s nothing but a giant false dichotomy. Even worse, it’s usually conflated with Freedom=selfishness and government =altruism. It’s a double quarter pounder of horse shit.

      • JH said

        “Conversely, has any Government since Thatcher actually tried to claim that her version of individualism was wrong.”

        Rubbish. Labour was claiming it was wrong from day one. “Thatcher taught kids to be selfish” or something similar. Having spent all my of my schooldays under the previous Tory administration, I can say with confidence that such teachings were noticable only by their absence.

  2. declineofthelogos said

    It’s absolutely true that there are as many variations of libertarianism as there are of socialism, and picking on one extreme example is unfair. My point was slightly broader than that though, and was more about the role of the State in pushing moral norms and the unintended consequences thereof. I sought to highlight the fact that rise of State-backed individualism in the 1980s led to a society in which the impact of one’s actions on others (in this case, benefits gained from the state by means of taxation) was ignored in favour of the interests of the self. You could consider it an anti-State argument, if you like, or rather that any form of moral argument – which Charlotte was making – when applied to society must necessarily crash on the rocks of differing moral views. Having the State back any particular moral view, including the libertarian one, will always lead to unintended consequences.

  3. Heuristic said

    Adam mate, you’re confusing individualism with psychopathy.

    • JH said

      The inability to understand the difference between Randian selfishness (not living for the sake of others or demanding they live for you) and screwing other people over (initiating force, forcing people to live for your benefit) is not “unintended consequences”.

      Claiming that libertarians endorse the latter is just a straw man.

  4. mdc said

    I think you’re mixing up two different types of individualism – namely the liberal concept of individual rights (“you may not do this to me without my consent”), with the socialist concept of individualism as cartoon villainy (“I will do whatever I want to you with or without your consent because I am wearing a top hat and went to Eton. Bwahahaha!”).

    Libertarians are perfectly consistent in being for the first version and against the second.

  5. declineofthelogos said

    @JH & MDC, as you’re both making broadly the same point: I think you’re assuming that individualism in the first sense that MDC refers to can be adequately distinguished from the second sense when promoting it at a very broad level. This is not the case, because individualism in the sense of an individual acting in accordance with their self-interest does not incorporate or entail the extra moral premise that they should not initiate force against others. This is analogous to the socialist position, which argues for collective action and has a second premise that one should work as hard for the collective as for oneself.

    Both of the extra moral premises under both systems are aimed at limiting one’s scope to compete. Since humans are necessarily competitive, both will fail. This is why any attempt to promote individualism will have the unintended consequence of promoting wholly selfish action without regard to the interests of others. Libertarianism has exactly the same drawback as socialism.

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