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Individualism

I've spent many hours thinking about the arguments in favor of individual liberties, such as the libertarian argument.  And I've posted about it in the past.  Many times I'm bothered by the doctrine but can't quite put my finger on why it bothers me.  So the purpose of this post is to lay forth one reason why I believe the argument for maximizing individual liberty (by minimizing the role of government) is invalid.

To say that the freedom of all is maximized when the freedom of each individual is maximized is to discount the social nature of human beings.  We are not a sea of individual humans existing in isolation from one another.  Rather, we are social beings.  We interact with one another in very meaningful ways.

Consider, for example, one argument in opposition to heavy taxes in order to fund things such as social welfare.  The conservative argument often includes "I don't want the government to take my money."  The premise is that when one works hard and earns money, one has sole ownership of that money and the government should not garnish the wages to pay for some (presumably) deadbeat to mooch off of.  Here is my issue with this particular argument.

I have a full-time job.  I am gainfully employed by Morehouse College to instruct a certain number of mathematics courses each semester.  I work hard for my money.  I earned a degree in order to qualify for the position.  I spend time reading through the textbook and preparing for my lectures.  I choose homework problems which I feel will best help the students learn and prepare for the tests.  I write the tests, proctor them, and grade them.  I put a lot of effort into my employ.  I can assert that I earned my money.  But I cannot assert that I earned it on my own.  I have relied on so many other people in order to achieve what I do.

I rely on the city and state governments to maintain the roads that I drive on to commute to work.  I rely on hard-working Chinese people, living below the poverty line, to produce the electronic devices that I use on a daily basis to aid me in my teaching.  I rely on the school administration to keep the College running, to admit students and collect tuition.  I rely on the students to enroll in and attend my classes.  I rely on the electric and gas companies to power the buildings on campus, and my own home.  I rely on my credit union to manage my finances accurately and securely.  I rely on so many people that I don't even think about on a regular basis (if ever).  There are so many people that I am entirely unaware of that are necessary for me to do all I need to do to fulfill my contract with Morehouse.

So I cannot say that I own all of my income.  It doesn't belong to me alone.  Yes, I worked hard for it, and it is a private agreement between me and my employer that I will be paid a certain amount in exchange for a certain service.  But the fact that I must admit is that I would be incapable of performing that service (and therefore of collecting my income) without the many people that have helped along the way.

I feel that I have a social obligation to help out other people as well.  Yes, the job that I perform does help people (probably not as much as I would like to think that it does).  There are a small number of my students who will actually use the math that I teach them in real life.  It may just be those who go on to graduate school in math.  But at least I know some of them will be benefited in a real way directly by what I do as a teacher.  But beyond that, I feel a need to help out those who are less fortunate than myself.  I feel it is perfectly acceptable for a portion of my wages to be taken (yes, even without me freely giving them up) and given to someone whose income is not as large as my own.

I do not believe that laws which treat us all as individuals are necessarily the best laws (not necessarily bad just because they rely on the doctrine of individualism, just not necessarily good for the same reason).  I believe that some laws and public policy need to acknowledge the fact that we exist not as a sea of individuals, but as a collective, as a society of interacting nodules.  We communicate with each other, we influence each other.  What each one of us does affects nearly everyone that we come in contact with, in varying degrees.  We need to be conscious of the effects our actions have on other people, and we need to tailor our public policy around that fact.  We maximize freedom for all when we maximize freedom for society as a whole, not for each individual separately.  We don't exist in isolation, we exist in very complex and meaningful interconnectedness.

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