Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Politics 2012: Can “American Individualism” Save the GOP – and America?

In a recent speech in Kansas, President Barack Obama once again reiterated his collectivist ideological premises. In this PJTV interview, Yaron Brook called the speech “about the death of individualism in America and that the standard from now on needs to be collectivism.” Obama “knows what his ideology is [and] has laid it out for us,” Brook stressed. This “anti-American” speech, he said, should make it clear that “the job of the Republican candidate, whoever it is, [is] to have this speech for taking on individualism, capitalism, [and] freedom.” (For an indepth look at the president's deep-seated premises once again exposed in this latest speech, see my 3-part 2008 essay Obama’s Collectivist Manifesto – Parts I, 2, and 3.

Is that candidate a part of the group currently competing for the Republican nomination? It doesn’t look like it. To be sure, some of the makings of a candidate of such stature do exist, but he is scattered among all of them. When listening to the debates, one can pick out policy positions from each candidate that, put together, would produce a pretty decent prospect. The dark cloud hanging over the entire field, however – at least the ones participating in the debates – is that cast by the dominance over the party of the Religious Right and its social authoritarianism. That dominance hollows out the party’s allegiance to individual freedom and free markets – to the extent that that allegiance even exists. More broadly, the Republicans hold to the same collectivist premises as Obama, often speaking of “the will of the people” or the “overall good of the country.”

Without a consistent ideological commitment to counter Obama’s explicit collectivist message, the Republicans may actually lose an election that should be a slam-dunk for them – and they would deserve it. The GOP’s muddled message, if you can even call it a message, is no match for Obama’s philosophical consistency, which Dr. John David Lewis labeled Obama's Atomic Bomb. Consequently, the GOP may be headed for a shipwreck that could send the old guard packing and direct the party toward a search for new ideas and a new identity. This would open the door to the kind of innovative thinking that could rejuvenate the GOP into the kind of ideological counter-force to the prevailing collectivist trend that American statists have not encountered in a long time.

Does such innovative thinking exist? Fortunately, the answer is yes; and that is the subject of a book review of mine that has been published in the Winter 2011-2012 Objective Standard. The book is called American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party by Margaret Hoover. Ms. Hoover is a young Republican activist, a Fox News contributor, and the great-granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover.

Hoover’s book is strikingly reminiscent, in its broad theme, of my November 2008 call-to-action entitled My Challenge To the GOP…a Philosophical Contract With America. Ms. Hoover’s thesis has significant flaws, however. Her proposed political platform for the GOP is far less consistent with her theme than it could be, even allowing that a full platform of laissez-faire would not be realistic in today’s political climate. For example, although Hoover calls for some privatization such as “private accounts within Social Security and health savings accounts for health-care spending [so as to] maximize the individual’s ability to make his or her own decisions,” she does so not as a step toward full freedom, but as an end in themselves. She accepts the basic validity of the New Deal and Great Society programs in direct contradiction to the principles of the individualism she promotes. Put another way, she does not "maximize the individual’s ability to make his or her own decisions." Rather, she keeps him locked up in coercive government programs, albeit with more "choice." More crucially, Hoover fails to defend individualism morally, which is the source of the contradiction. Instead, and in line with most pro-freedom thinkers dating back to the Enlightenment, she attempts to reconcile individualism with altruism.

The pattern of defending individualism and by extension capitalism and individual rights on a base of altruism has been the dominant formula, and failure, of conservatism to this day. Hoover continues along that path. But one must acknowledge that she is not a philosophic innovator, after all, but a political innovator. Even so, Hoover seems to at least understand the basic existential nature and supreme value of individualism and its vital connection to America. And although she does not explain or defend individualism down to all of its deepest philosophical roots, it is unclear why. There are times that she hints a fuller understanding, and she does mention individualism’s foremost moral defender, Ayn Rand, alluding to her fiction and non-fiction works as influential to conservatism in the economic sense. She comes closest to a proper description of individualism in the metaphysical and epistemological realms; the individual as sovereign and the individual mind as the source of all human progress. And though she nibbles at the ethical aspect of individualism, it is here that she goes off the rails. Though she doesn’t use the term “altruism”, it’s clear that’s what she has in mind when she says that individualism must be “tempered” or “imbued with service to community … and country,” because the acknowledged inspiration for her current work is the 1922 book written by her great-grandfather Herbert Hoover. In his book, “American Individualism” – a title which Margaret Hoover borrows and which is indicative of its supreme importance to her thesis – the man who would become our 31st president makes an impassioned plea for “the sole source of progress … [the] intelligence, character, courage, and … divine spark of the human soul [which] are alone the property of individuals.” Yet this self-described “unashamed … American individualist” would forbid “individualism run riot, with no tempering principle.” Despite his acknowledgement that “we dare not abandon self-interest as a motive force to leadership and to production, lest we die,” his lack of understanding of the true nature of individualism leads him to that “tempering” principle – the “ideal” of “the aspiration and satisfactions of pure altruism.” Herbert Hoover can serve as a philosophical case study in how the most passionate defender of individual freedom will be inexorably drawn to statism - as evidenced by his presidential policies - as a consequence of altruism's influence.

Does Margaret Hoover not understand the moral case for individualism? Does she understand it but not agree with it? Does she understand it, perhaps even agree with it, but believe that promoting individualism on its proper egoistic base is politically untenable? The answers are unknown to me, but a yes answer to this last question is a distinct possibility. Hoover seeks to inject individualism into the heart of the Republican brand. With service and sacrifice as the accepted moral norms within a culture that still implicitly reveres individualism, she may be attempting to make individualism more politically palatable. But there are better ways to do that. For example, although individualism recognizes no unchosen moral obligations of a positive nature (i.e. requiring action), she could explain that there is nothing about the nature of individualism, properly understood, that would preclude self-interested chosen moral obligations to fellow citizens, to private efforts to make one’s community environment a better place to live, or to the kinds of humanitarian efforts like the WW I food relief efforts to stave off famine that Herbert Hoover led and which Margaret Hoover describes and lauds in her book. Indeed, Herbert Hoover himself disproves the need for any tempering principle, as this “unashamed … American individualist” stepping up in an emergency in no way contradicts the egoistic nature of individualism: Self-reverence is the moral core of individualism, and that is where compassion, good will, and the valuing of others begin. After all, who would want the truly needy – those unable to help themselves through no fault of their own - to be without any charitable options? (In fact, 19th century America – the most individualistic century any nation ever lived – was also a very generous and compassionate America, as Don Watkins and Yaron Brook explain in the current issue of Forbes.) Individualism does not preclude flourishing relationships at the level of romantic love, friendship, child rearing, or associations with neighbors. In fact, individualism fosters close personal relationships based upon shared values. Individualism does not mean narrow self-centeredness or personal isolationism. Furthermore, it does not mean power-lust; the domination or exploitation of others, which is a form of selfless pseudo-individualism that in fact is the flip side of the coin that also embodies parasitism. Living through and/or at the expense of others takes many forms – none of them individualistic. A true individualist would never rely upon anything other than honest and voluntary associations with others because, being an individualist, he doesn’t fear or resent self-reliance.

That said, Hoover’s main thrust is toward individualism, and politically her sympathy clearly lies with individual freedom; her view being, essentially, that altruism is compatible with individualism, and some limited statism is compatible with freedom, rather than the other way around on both counts. Hoover's initiative is a rather courageous one, as she risks the scorn of establishment conservatism (ex. being labeled a “RINO” – Republican in Name Only). She sought a formula for a new Republican majority and found it in what she views as the common ground between her great grandfather’s ideas and today’s millennials, and seeks to transplant American Individualism 1922 into 21st century politics. The focus on individualism will move the political debate into freedom’s ideological territory, and could begin the long process of building a proper philosophical foundation for the GOP.

A philosophical principle has its own dynamic, being grounded as are all concepts not in the subjective opinions or understandings of any individual mind but in the objective facts of reality. That Ms. Hoover doesn’t establish the moral foundation of individualism does not mean it doesn’t exist. Others may come forward to take on the task of defining it. That her flawed conception leaves the moral argument for individualism to others to properly define does not diminish the political significance of what she is proposing. A principle carries the virtue of being a reference point or yardstick by which to measure the validity of a party’s entire platform agenda. Under the unifying principle of individualism, competing GOP factions would have to anchor their positions to that premise – or leave the party. It would draw a bright line between the two major parties; a line that currently doesn’t exist except as a matter of degree between ideologically like-minded political entities. A GOP fused around individualism would serve a dual purpose: It would compel the Republican Party toward consistency in defense of freedom, while painting the Democratic Party into a collectivist corner.

A Hoover-esque “American Individualism”-oriented major party would give the more consistent defenders of individualism, individual rights, and capitalism a broad political opening. Herbert Hoover’s gallant attempt to stand against the collectivist tide of his day anticipated his successors of the 20th century conservative movement with his vigorous defense of individualism on a moral base of altruism. Capitalism, the political derivative of individualism, has been defended by conservatives on that premise ever since. That formula has been put to the test over the past nine decades, and has failed. To make their case, individualism’s consistent defenders may now draw upon the historical failure of that formula to stop the incremental advance of the very socialism that Herbert Hoover sought to stop. They also have something else that didn’t exist 90 years ago; the wide-scale philosophical case for the morality of individualism provided by philosopher Ayn Rand, whom Ms. Hoover credits only narrowly as merely a champion of economic liberty.

Hoover’s valiant attempt to infuse the Republican Party with “individualism as [its] integrating philosophy” is a breath of fresh air. Despite its flaws, the value of Hoover’s book is that it introduces the proper principles into the political realm, whether explicitly or implicitly. It points the national dialogue toward better ideas, because the fundamentals of individualism lead to pro-individual rights, pro-egoism, pro-capitalism political legislation, as the course of least resistance.

Is Margaret Hoover’s a lonely voice in the wilderness of an intellectually challenged Republican Party, destined to be drowned out by the social authoritarians and the pragmatist me-too-ers? Or, is she a pioneer in a new vanguard destined to revolutionize the party? As of this writing, the Republican field seems unable to produce a candidate that could actually have a strong chance of defeating Barack Obama. But in this era of “the protestor,” coupled with the steady abandonment of the two major parties by American voters, the Republican Party my emerge from the coming 2012 election season in search of new ideas and a new direction. This is the silver lining circling the GOP field. In that event, Margaret Hoover’s “American Individualism” could be an influential book. It is the kind of political initiative that freedom-lovers can encourage (and be encouraged by) – not in every premise and certainly not in every concrete detail – but in the direction it would take the political dialogue. It would be the equivalent of a Republican atomic counterattack. As I concluded in my condensed review published on Amazon.com:

Despite the serious ethical contradiction inherent in her central thesis, however, Hoover is a political innovator who seeks to point the GOP in the right direction, and deserves strong - albeit qualified - support from liberty lovers. Both within the GOP and in the nation at large, her proposal could reorient America's political debate around the central conflict - individualism vs. collectivism. It could infuse our politics with a broad, vital debate on ethics, the rights of the individual, the proper role of government, and the fundamental nature of individualism itself. By calling on the GOP to be a principled, consistent advocate of individualism - even a significantly flawed conception of it - we may finally get "a choice not an echo" against the Obama Democrats' crusading collectivism. Should the GOP be serious and farsighted enough to adopt Hoover's basic strategy, we may begin to turn America's political tide away from the approaching abyss of totalitarian socialism.

2 comments:

Mike Kevitt said...

I watched PJTV, Front Page, intervue with Yaron Brook. I'd like to hear Brook, uninterrupted, say what he has to say about Obama's Kansas speech. The intervue was just full of flak; nobody got out much substance. I hate to say it, but it was like I expect of collective action. I say, intervues aren't that way by necessity, by their nature. I certainly doubt Brook would conduct one that way. Maybe Brook will, on his own, make a statement covering both Obama's Kansas speech and his State of the Union speech. I'll make what I make of both, but it's interesting what somebody like him, or you, make of them. The intervue was still worth listening to, anyway. Thanks for refering to it in this posting.

Mike Zemack said...

PJTV is not conducive to indepth analysis, and I know of no speech, interview, book or article where Brook deals directly with the individualism/collectivism philosophical divide. But it would be welcome, because he is very talented, and has a way of clearly and convincingly concretizing abstract ideas.