Thursday, January 10, 2019

On ‘Rugged Individualism’ and the Welfare State

In response to my answer to QUORA *: ‘What will it mean for policy making in the US now the Democrats have taken control of the House and the Republicans have extended their lead in the Senate?’, a correspondent, Michael Coburn, picked up on the philosophical relevance of a statement I made. In response to my reply to his subsequent comment, Coburn seemed to switch to advocating for the welfare state;

Michael Coburn Replied:

Government can be used to make positive change and raise the quality of life? [sic; I think he meant to say “can’t.”] Systems such as Social Security and Medicare do that in spite of objections from a minority of “rugged individualists”. Left to individualism life would not be so great. In the conceptualization of representative democracy, the “state” is the slave of the “people”. If our “state” is not, then our “state” is broken. We need to fix it and use it appropriately.

I addressed his points with this reply:

Government is the only institution that can legally compel obedience. When you say “use” government, you’re advocating use of force by some people against other people who simply disagree, but have committed no crime. Is that using government “appropriately”? The dirty little secret of representative democracy is that an elected legislature can trample a person’s rights as readily as any dictator. An appropriate government--a representative republic--is one restrained by constitutional protections of individual rights and limited to enumerated separation of powers designed for that purpose. No electoral faction should ever be allowed to use the government as the “hired gun” to impose their values on all others, regardless of the size of the majority or the small number of dissenters. The “people,” after all, is an assortment of individuals, not an omnipotent entity that reigns above and apart from the individuals who comprise it. Each person is part of “the people,” and thus has an equal right to plan for her own life matters such as retirement and healthcare so long as he respects the same rights of others. Both Social Security and Medicare violate those principles. When you say “the ‘state’ is the slave of the ‘people’,” you speak of some people making slaves of other people. But freedom is not the right to vote away other people’s liberty and property or force one’s values on others. Freedom is the right to live your life regardless of other people’s votes.

The term “rugged individualist” is usually used derogatorily to imply some lone wolf who has no use or care for any other person. But that’s a straw man. A rational--that is, truly individualistic--person understands that there is tremendous value to be gained from associating with others in all areas of life, economic, social, personal. But an individualist respects other people, and will only deal with others in voluntary and mutually advantageous terms. The issue is not mutual cooperation and associations, or not. The issue is forced ‘cooperation” and association versus voluntary cooperation and association. Would you think it right to force another person into a church congregation? After all, some people think religion is vital to “the quality of life.” Neither is it right to force that person into financial arrangements like Social Security. Just as some people might prefer secular beliefs, others might prefer mutual funds or other personal uses for their money.

Granted, the welfare state is not full socialism. The so-called safety net leaves room for individual rights and free enterprise, making it tolerable. But the limited socialism of the welfare state is still collectivist, statist, and anti-individualist. It is a “gateway drug” to totalitarianism, as the state of today’s politics indicates. Government should be neither slave nor master. It should be the agent protecting the free choice of all, not just choices of the politically privileged but also electoral minorities and “rugged individualists.”


Related Reading:

America Before the Entitlement State
—Yaron Brook and Don Watkin

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