Perhaps the fundamental dispute between libertarians and liberals resides in
the ontological status of “society” and “the public."
Social Atomism might well be the foundational doctrine of libertarianism,
upon which all other planks of the libertarian platform – market
fundamentalism, privatism, minimal government, spontaneous order – are supported. Refute
this doctrine, and quite possibly the entire theoretical structure of
libertarianism might collapse. Accordingly, the doctrine of Social Atomism
deserves careful critical scrutiny.
The Social Atomism of the libertarians was starkly expressed by Margaret
Thatcher when she wrote: “There is no such thing as society – there are
individuals and there are families.”1 And Ayn Rand: “There is no such entity
as 'the public' ... the public is merely a number of individuals."2 Now
admittedly, Baroness Thatcher is not a political philosopher, and Ayn Rand
insisted that she was not a libertarian. So let’s look further.
Consider first, this passage from Frank Chodorov:
Society is a collective concept and nothing else; it is a convenience for
designating a number of people... The concept of Society as a metaphysical
concept falls flat when we observe that Society disappears when the
component parts disperse... When the individuals disappear so does the
whole. The whole has no separate existence.3
Next, David Boaz of The Cato Institute:
For libertarians, the basic unit of social analysis is the individual....
Individuals are, in all cases, the source and foundation of creativity,
activity, and society. Only individuals can think, love, pursue projects,
act. Groups don’t have plans or intentions. Only individuals are capable of
[At] the conceptual level, we must understand that society is composed of
individuals. It has no independent existence.4
Harry Binswanger writes in Forbes Magazine:
“‘The community’ never gave
anyone anything. ‘The community,’ ‘the society,’ ‘the nation’ is
just a number of interacting individuals, not a mystical entity
floating in a cloud above them." (September 17, 2013)
Does Margaret Thatcher truly believe that “there is no such thing as
society”? If so, one must wonder what this former British Prime Minister
must make of Lord Nelson's charge to his officers at the Battle of
Trafalgar: "England expects that every man will do his duty." And for what
did the magnificent aviators in the Battle of Britain sacrifice their lives?
For England? But "England" is an alleged "society," and according to
Baroness Thatcher, there is "no such thing." Thus we encounter a curious
evolution in Tory philosophy, from Churchill's "there will always be an
England," to Thatcher's "there is no such thing as England."
And recall David Boaz’s account of “spontaneous order:” “order
arises spontaneously, out of actions of thousands or millions of individuals
who coordinate their actions with those of others in order to achieve their
purposes.” And he continues: “The most important institutions of human
society... all developed spontaneously ... Civil society ... is another
example of spontaneous order...”5 (my emphases, EP). Interesting, isn’t it,
that the same libertarians who deny the existence of “society,” seem unable
to articulate their doctrines without the use of the words “social” and
The implications of Social Atomism are radical in the extreme, for if there
is no such thing as “a public,” it follows that there are no “public goods”
or “public interest,” apart from summation of private goods and interests.
Moreover, if there is no society, it follows that there are no “social
problems,” there is no “social injustice,” and there are no “victims of
society.” The poor presumably choose their condition; poverty is the result
of “laziness” or, as the religious right would put it, a “sin.” There are
further implications. Since there is no such thing as a “public,” taxation
for the support of such “so-called” public institutions as education,
libraries, the arts, parks and recreation, is coercive seizure of private
property, or “theft.”
The liberal replies that this denial of the very existence of “society” and
“the public” is reductionism, plain and simple – what the Brits call
“nothing-buttery.” It is comparable to saying that Hamlet is “nothing but”
words, that Beethoven’s music is “nothing but” notes, that the Mona Lisa is
“nothing but” pigments on canvas, and that the human brain is “nothing but”
cells and electro-chemical events.
This sort of reductionism commits the elementary logical fallacy of equating
necessary conditions with sufficient causes. Granted, without words there is
no Hamlet, and without notes there is no Eroica . So too, without individual
persons, there is no society. But Hamlet is not a random collection of
words, and the Eroica is not a random collection of notes. In addition,
these words and notes have been organized by geniuses. Similarly, without
delegates there would have been no Continental Congress of 1776 or
Constitutional Convention of 1787. But without the genius and the common
purpose of the men convened at those meetings, there would have been no
founding documents of our republic. It is these documents, not
"merely" the "summation" of the individuals that wrote and ratified
them, that have profoundly moved subsequent human history.
True, "societies” and
“publics” are collections of individuals. But they are much more.
They are "collections" united by law, custom,
shared history, institutions, common purpose and, in the case of nations,
governments and constitutions. And thus they, like works of genius, are more
than the mere sum of their component parts.
Good for each, bad for all.
Further refutation of Social Atomism, the keystone of libertarianism, is
simple and straightforward. If we can cite cases in which self-serving
behavior (“good for each”) can cause collective harm (bad for all), and
conversely cases in which imposed constraints upon individuals (“bad for
each”) can result in collective benefits (“good for all”), then, by thus
distinguishing “each” and “all” we will have demonstrated the existence of
an “all-entity,” “society,” with unique properties that are distinct from a
mere aggregate of individuals. By this account, “the liberal view,” society
is what philosophers call “an emergent entity.” Like chemical compounds such
as water and table salt, the combination of elements produce a substance
with properties distinct from those of the component elements. In more
familiar terms, society is “more than the sum of its parts.” Here are four
The Paradox of Sex Selection. In the cultures of India and China, male
children are much preferred to female children. First of all, a girl born to
a family incurs the eventual financial burden of a dowry. But even more
significantly perhaps, sons are cherished because they will carry on the
For all time, the outcome of a pregnancy, a boy or a girl, has been a
lottery -- until now. With the advance of medical science, it is now
possible to know whether a fetus is male or female. Accordingly, it is
reported that to avoid the birth of a girl, many pregnancies in China and
India are being "terminated." In addition, of course, there is the more
ruthless option of female infanticide. If these practices of sex selection
were to become widespread, it is obvious that there would be many more males
than females in the coming generations.6
Thus an intriguing paradox emerges. The attempt by each couple to produce an
heir that will "carry on the family name," results in fewer potential wives
in the population, and thus a decreased opportunity for the sons to fulfill
their filial duty of “carrying on the family name.”
The upshot: the ability of
each couple to achieve the benefit of a male
child, diminishes the opportunity of all couples to have grandchildren, and
thus "carry on the family name." In sum: what is good for each family is bad
for all families.
An obvious solution would be to outlaw female feticide and infanticide, so
that the sex ratio on the population would return to an approximately normal
50-50. Bad for each, good for all.
The paradox of "good for each, bad for all," and its reciprocal "bad for
each, good for all," far from being accidental consequences of this
particular bizarre case, are arguably the very foundation of social life and
the fundamental justification of government. Furthermore, the failure of
libertarians to acknowledge this paradox, renders their doctrines
politically untenable and morally indefensible.
Antibiotics: The over-use of antibiotics "selects" resistant "super-bugs,"
decreasing the effectiveness of antibiotics for all. But just one more
anti-biotic prescription for a trivial, "self-limiting" bronchial infection
won't make a significant difference "in general," while it will clearly
benefit the individual patient. But multiply that individual doctor's
prescription by the millions, and we have a serious problem. "Good for each
patient, bad for the general population." The solution: restrict the use of
antibiotics to the seriously ill. Individuals with trivial and
non-life-threatening ailments must “tough it out.” “Bad for each, good for
Traffic laws: We all agree that traffic laws can be a nuisance. But if you
believe that traffic lights constrain your freedom of movement, try to drive
across Manhattan during a power outage! In the blackouts of 1965 and 1977 in
the eastern United States and Canada, traffic began to move only after the
police and a few citizen volunteers stood at the intersections and directed
traffic. (I was in Manhattan during both events). The decision of each
driver to accept constraints worked to the advantage of all. So too with the
traffic lights and stop signs that we encounter daily. We are all freer to
move about only because we have collectively agreed to restrict our
individual freedom of movement. “Bad for each, good for all.”
The Tragedy of the Commons. The principle of "good for each, bad for all"
was forcefully brought to public attention in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, in his
essay "The Tragedy of the Commons"7 -- which was, for a while, the most
widely reprinted scientific essay of the time.
Hardin, a biologist, cites as an example, a pasture owned "in common" by the
residents of a village. The pasture is at "carrying capacity" -- the number
of sheep is such that the villagers can, with that number, use the pasture
indefinitely without reducing the productivity of the land. However, any
additional sheep will degrade the pasture and thus its capacity to support
It thus becomes immediately apparent, that any individual who adds a sheep
to his personal flock will gain in personal wealth, while, at the same time,
by degrading the common resource and the value of the other sheep, he
slightly decreases the wealth of every other villager. Each villager is
similarly situated. Absent common agreement and enforcement thereof, it is
"rational" for each individual to increase his personal flock, even though,
in Hardin's words, "ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each
pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of
In other words: "good for each, bad for all."
The solution? Hardin prescribes "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,"
which means the rule of law enforced by government. Each individual agrees
to a curtailment of liberty (“bad for each”) in behalf of the common good
(“good for all”).
It is all too easy to overlook the profound “tragedy” in the “trap” faced by
the villagers in Hardin’s example – “tragedy,” in the sense of “the
solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” (Here Hardin quotes the
philosopher Alfred North Whitehead).9 For so long as there is no protection
of the commons through government regulation and law, the certain fate of
the common pasture is destruction. Accordingly, under these circumstances
the only “rational” course for each herdsman is to increase his herd and
take what he can while he can. If he altruistically volunteers restraint all
by himself, he is a fool for his restraint will in no way preserve the
commons. Thus restraint (aimed at preservation) is punished and greed
(contributing to destruction) is rewarded.
If the “tragedy” applied only to a village of herdsmen surrounded by a
“common” pasture, it would be of little interest. The power of the tragedy
of the commons is its enormous scope of application: not only to pastures,
but also to the seas, the atmosphere, rivers and lakes – any and all
resources available to all and owned by none.
Accordingly, an industry that volunteers to scrub its smokestacks or purify
its water outflow, assumes costs that will put it at a disadvantage with
competitors. The irresponsible industries win out in a “race to the bottom,”
and the common atmosphere and watershed degrade, along with the health of
unconsenting citizens in the vicinity.
So too with the whaling industry, prior to the adoption of international
agreements to impose limits. (“Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”). The
whales were then clearly being hunted to extinction. Yet the only result of
individual restraint was to leave the whales for others to catch: “they’re
done for anyway – let’s get what we can now before they’re gone.” A similar
tragedy has caused a radical reduction in the fishery “catch” in the North
Atlantic.10 Now, at long last, international limits have been imposed.
The libertarian-right solution? Privatize the commons. In many cases, this
is a wise and effective remedy. For example, when “open range” is fenced-off
and divided into private tracts, each rancher-land-owner has an economic
incentive to preserve the productivity of his land. However, some domains
simply cannot be privatized – notably the atmosphere and the oceans. (More
about the privatization solution in the next essay of this series).
Catalytic Converters and the Limits of Volunteerism. Next, an application of
the tragedy of the commons that might be more salient to those like myself,
who live in or near urban centers, where automobiles are many and sheep are
Libertarians often tell us that voluntary restraint is a morally preferable
solution to commons problems than government coercion. Sure enough! The
trouble is, it doesn’t work.
Consider the catalytic converter as a solution to the problem of air
pollution. (The numbers are “made up” as accuracy is not important. This is
a hypothetical “model” based roughly on generally known technology and
The catalytic converter is a device placed on a vehicle’s exhaust system
which eliminates (let us assume) 90% of exhaust pollution. Assume further
that purchase and installation of the unit costs $200. In the Los Angeles
airshed (near my residence) are ten million vehicles.
Would I be willing to pay $200 to clean up the air in my neighborhood?
LA minute! Will I clean up the air by volunteering, all by myself, to
install a catalytic converter? No way! If I do, I will reduce the pollution
by slightly less than one ten-millionth. In effect, no help whatever. And I
will be out $200. To put the matter bluntly: volunteerism is not only
futile, it is irrational. The solution is obvious and compelling: require
that all vehicles have working catalytic converters. Result: the air
pollution in LA has been dramatically reduced, to the relief of the vast
majority of Angelinos, and at an individual cost acceptable to that
If a proposition to repeal the catalytic converter requirement were put on
the ballot, it would be soundly defeated (assuming the public was correctly
informed). The solution is straightforward, rational and popular: “mutual
coercion mutually agreed upon.” Imposed and enforced by “big government.”
It costs (“bad for each”), but the “social benefit” is well-worth it (“good
I have referred above to “material” or “resource” commons – air, water,
oceans, pastures (“open range”), etc. But there are also “non-material”
commons that are equally, if not more, important to the quality of social
life and the justice of a political order. These include the rule of law,
the quality and level of education in the community, trust in the government
and the prevailing sense among the citizens of that government’s legitimacy,
the degree of civility and the “moral tone” extant in the society. When
unscrupulous individuals act to their own advantage and heedless of the
consequences to others, they can degrade “the moral commons” – the mutual
respect and constraint that is implicit in every well ordered society. For
example, when outlaws are unpunished, the rule of law suffers. Worse still,
when corrupt politicians and government officials put themselves above the
law and betray the citizens by accepting bribes from special interests, they
erode the trust that is essential to good government. And when there is
reason to believe that the ballot has been compromised and there are no
offsetting procedures to assure the accuracy of the ballot, the very
legitimacy of the government and of legislation is diminished.
In a just political order, based on the principles of our founding
documents, government and the rule of law are the common “property” of the
citizens at large, and of no class or faction in particular. This principle
is stated explicitly in the Declaration of our Independence: “to secure
these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just
powers from the consent of the governed.”
I will have much more to say about “the commons” – both material and
non-material – as this series of essays progresses. (The concept, “good for
each, bad for all,” is elaborated more extensively
in the chapter with that
title in my Conscience of a Progressive).
The Liberal Alternative to Social Atomism: The Moral Point of View
and The Social Contract.
To sum up: “society” is not, as the libertarians would have us believe,
simply autonomous private individuals “doing their own thing,” from which
activity somehow, “as if by an invisible hand” (Adam Smith), benefits for
all accrue without foresight or planning – a “spontaneous order” as the
libertarians call it. On the
contrary, the liberal insists, a society is more than the sum of its
individual parts. A society is, as John Rawls puts it, “a cooperative
venture for mutual advantage [which] makes possible a better life for all
than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts.”11 As
these examples illustrate, common goods are achieved through individual
constraint and sacrifice. “ Bad for each, good for all.” Conversely,
unconstrained self-serving behavior by each individual can harm society as a
whole. “Good for Each, Bad for all.”
The liberal does not deny that self-serving individual behavior, for example
by scientists, entrepreneurs and artists, often or even usually results in
benefits for all. (“Good for each, good for all”). Instead, the liberal
insists that this is not a universal rule. In innumerable instances, such as
the five presented above, it can be clearly shown that social benefit
requires individual constraint and sacrifice.
More generally, as every sociologist, psychologist and anthropologist well
knows, human existence, including human consciousness, thought, evaluation,
history, and culture, including private property and markets, is
inconceivable without society. A human infant is not like a sea turtle or a
mackerel, wholly independent and autonomous upon "hatching." All uniquely
human life, thought and culture has its origin and sustenance in the
uniquely human mode of communication: articulate language, which can only be
acquired in social life. We define ourselves, and are in turn defined, first
by the society and culture in which we find ourselves as we mature, and
possibly later on by the societies and cultures that we seek out and adopt,
or in the case of geniuses, transform. “The self,” writes the economist
Herman Daly, “is in reality not an isolated atom, but is constituted by its
relations in community with others - the very identity of the self is social
rather than atomistic."12 (For an extended argument in defense of
the social origin and nature of human personality, see
"How is Morality
Possible?, Chapter 12 of Conscience of a Progressive).
Furthermore, as many moral philosophers have argued (with significant
support from "game theory"), morality can only be
understood, and moral problems cogently solved, from the perspective of a
hypothetical observer of the human interaction - the so-called "moral point
of view." From this perspective, the group of interacting individuals is the
irreducible unit of moral deliberation. Moral problems can no more be
analyzed from the point of view of the individual, than strategy and rules
of a team sport such as hockey can be analyzed from the point of view of a
single player, or a chess game successfully played in disregard of the
opposing player. Finally, as the history of warfare repeatedly affirms, the
best means of achieving the selfish end of personal survival on the
battlefield is to subordinate one's concern for personal survival to a
shared willingness to sacrifice one's life in behalf of others. Thus
morality, at its foundations, is paradoxical: it is often in one's best
interest not to seek above all one's self interest. This paradox can only be
resolved from "the moral point of view" - from the perspective of the
ideally informed and disinterested observer of human interaction. (For an
The Moral Point of View, Chapter 6 of
Conscience of a
To the libertarian, morality is founded in individual rights. In
contradistinction the liberal, while acknowledging individual rights, goes
further. By adopting “the moral point of view,” the liberal also recognizes
“social goods” such as economic justice, domestic tranquility, and communal
loyalty, all of which flourish under a system of laws, regulations, and
enumerated welfare rights, which are best enacted, executed and protected by
the institution of popular government – “of, by, and for the people.”
These, then, are the contrasting moral perspectives of the libertarian and
The Libertarian: From the point of view of the individual (“the egocentric
point of view,” “the mind’s I”). “Good for each.” From this perspective, the
individual is enjoined to “live for his own sake, neither sacrificing
himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” (Ayn Rand).
The Liberal: From the perspective of an unbiased benevolent spectator of
society (“the moral point of view”). “Good for all.” Furthermore, the
liberal acknowledges a loyalty toward the social and political institutions
that are the foundations of one’s liberty, security and well-being, and that
this acknowledgment entails a moral obligation to support and defend these
Thus the libertarian (who, recall, denies the very existence of “society”)
advocates the maximum liberty for each individual. The liberal, on the other
hand, seeks to maximize the amount of liberty extant in the society.
The liberal further argues that, paradoxically, the egocentric point of view
can not accomplish the libertarian goal of maximizing individual liberty. It
fails, because individual liberties, and especially the liberties enjoyed by
the privileged, powerful and wealthy, constrain the liberties and diminish
the welfare of others. In other words, egocentric perspective violates the
"like liberty principle" that the libertarian nominally supports: namely,
that each individual is entitled to the maximum liberty consistent with the
equal liberty of others. (Much more about this claim in the following
Furthermore, the libertarian’s egocentric perspective fails because
political and economic problems are not problems of individuals, they are
problems of groups (i.e., of “all”), and therefore the interests of all
affected individuals must be taken into account. The liberal proposes that
these interests are best “taken into account,” fairly and equally, from the
perspective of a hypothetical individual who is unbiased and benevolent –
seeking the best result for all while respecting the inalienable rights of
In fact, no such neutral observer is actually necessary, for each moral
agent, and the agent’s surrogate, the government, is quite capable of
adopting the point of view of the hypothetical “unbiased benevolent
observer.” Indeed, we did just that as we found solutions to the
aforementioned problems, the sex selection paradox, the use of antibiotics,
traffic control, and the tragedy of the commons, whereby constraints upon
each resulted in benefits to all. There we found that the astute moral agent
would, as a “the unbiased benevolent observer,” perceive that all would
benefit from constraints upon each.
The perspective of the “unbiased neutral observer” has a name – in fact,
numerous names, since it is one of the most familiar concepts in the history
of political theory and moral philosophy: “the impartial spectator” (Adam
Smith), “the ideal observer” (John Stuart Mill), “the general will”
(Rousseau), “the view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel), “the original position”
(John Rawls), and my personal favorite, "the moral point of view" (Kurt
Baier, Kai Nielsen and many more).
And who or what is most appropriately entitled to adopt the perspective of
the “unbiased, benevolent observer,” and to codify and enforce the rules
derived therefrom? What else than an agency selected and acting by the
consent of the people, an agency that enacts and administers laws to the
benefit of all, an agency constituted to “establish Justice, insure domestic
tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,
and secure the blessings of liberty.”
That agency has a name: “democratic government.” And in case you didn’t
notice, the above quotation is from the Preamble to the Constitution of the
We will have much more to say in Essay Six regarding the necessity and
justification of government.
Public Goods and The Public Interest.
If my argument has succeeded, I have
proven the existence of “public goods” and “public interest” that are
distinct from the mere summation of private interests. Consider again the
case of antibiotics which, medical practice has clearly demonstrated, lose
their potency the more they are prescribed. The widespread use of
antibiotics is clearly to the advantage of each patient, though the
resulting loss of potency is to the disadvantage of all patients. Thus it is
“in the public interest” to discourage the use of antibiotics by
non-critical patients. It is to the advantage of each vehicle owner not to
purchase and install a catalytic converter, though this results in an
increase in air pollution. But it is in the interest of all citizens when
these devices are required by law. Clean air is thus a “public good”
achieved through the imposition of “personal bads.” Clearly “the public
interest” and “public goods” are in these cases, as well as the others cited
above,” distinguishable from the summation of private interests and goods.
For a political scientist or a sociologist to deny the existence of public
interests and goods should be analogous to a geographer denying a round
earth, an astronomer denying Copernicus and heliocentrism, a chemist denying
Boyles Law, a physicist denying thermodynamics, and a biologist denying
evolution. Each of these principles are the foundations of these various
sciences. And yet, the libertarian, by denying the “real existence” of the
entities “society” and “the public, denies the existence of social needs and
benefits and of public interests and goods as it proclaims that voluntary
associations, privatization and the free market always yield superior
results to government “coercion” of private citizens.
The coordinate principles, "good for each, bad for all" and "bad for each,
good for all," resound throughout the history of political thought -- from
Aristotle, through Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas
Jefferson, on to the present day. And they have a name: "Social
Contract Theory." Indeed, the practical application of the social
contract is implicit in successful communities, from the present
extending far back into pre-history. The principles of "good for each, bad
for all" and "bad for each, good for all" are the key to the survival of
communities of social insects such as bees and termites, and of social
animals such as wolf packs, wherein evolution, not argument, provides their
And yet, amazingly, those who presume to call themselves "conservatives,"
reject these principles, in favor of another: "good for each, good for all."
This libertarian principle of the political right, exemplified by
"trickle-down economics" and the assurance that "the rising [economic] tide
raises all boats," is immediately appealing. Who would not desire that
collective "goods" should result from the achievement of personal
well-being? And in fact, the progressive will readily admit that many human
endeavors that achieve individual benefits, also benefit society at large.
“Good for each, good for all” is true in particular and identifiable cases,
such as artistic creation, technological invention, and yes, business
Is there a simple and unfailing means to distinguish "the invisible hand"
(good for each, good for all), from "the back of the invisible hand" (e.g.
the tragedy of the commons, "good for each, bad for all")? When I posed that
question to my late friend, Garrett Hardin, he replied "that is a Nobel
Prize winning question." Until that Nobel Prize winning genius comes along,
we must continue to do what the empirical and pragmatic liberals have
routinely done: if individual behavior appears to have socially destructive
results, try out a meliorative policy or law, and if it "works" for society
-- if we find a device that benefits society at an acceptable cost to
individual citizens -- then fine, we'll keep it. If not, try something else.
And if it becomes clear that the best policy is for government and the law
to leave well-enough alone (good for each, good for all), for example,
maintaining the separation between church and state, or refusing to prohibit
sex acts between consenting adults, then let non-interference be the
government policy. Right-wing propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding,
progressives are not eager to expand government interference and control
over the private lives of its citizens. It is not the progressives, nor, to
be fair, the libertarians, that are demanding Constitutional amendments
against gay marriage, abortion, and flag burning.
The error of the libertarians resides in their embrace of the principle
"good for each, good for all" as dogma, applied a priori to society and the
economy, virtually without exception. By rejecting, implicitly, the
principle of "good for each, bad for all" and vice versa, the libertarian
recognizes no personal price that must be paid for the maintenance of a just
social order, and pays no heed to the social costs of one's personal
"pursuit of happiness."
For the libertarian, the only legitimate functions of government are the
protection of the three fundamental rights of life, liberty and property.13
Hence, the only legitimate disbursement of tax revenues is for the military
(protection from foreign enemies), the "night watchman" police (protection
from domestic enemies), and the courts (adjudication of property disputes).
Because there are no "public goods," compulsory tax payment for public
education, research and development of science and technology, medical care,
museums, promotion of the arts, public and national parks, etc., is the
moral equivalent of theft.
According to this account of human nature and society, with the exception of
the just noted protections of life, liberty and property, there is nothing
that government can accomplish that private initiative and the free market
cannot achieve with better results. As Ronald Reagan famously said in his
first inaugural address: "government is not the solution, government is the
problem." No regulation, no governmental functions beyond basic protection
of life, liberty and property, no taxes except to support these minimal
functions. Any governmental activity beyond this should, in Grover
Norquist's words, be "drowned in the bathtub."
Let the free market reign without constraint, allow all "capitalist acts
between consenting adults" (Robert Nozick). As each individual, in Adam
Smith's words, "intends only his own gain," then each individual will be
"led by an invisible hand to promote ... the public interest."
Good for each, good for all.
In contrast, the progressive views society as more than the sum of its
parts; it is what philosophers call an "emergent entity," with properties
and principles of the whole distinct from those of its components just as,
analogously, chemical compounds (e.g. water and salt) have properties
distinct from their component elements. In this sense society and its
economy is like a computer, an engine, an ecosystem, the clarity of a living
language. If the system malfunctions, there are innocent victims -- the
poor, the oppressed, the addicted, the uneducated -- and the system is thus
in need of adjustment or repair or even overhaul and redesign. These
corrections are best diagnosed and treated when the system is examined and
analyzed, as a system, and not as an amalgam of distinct individual parts.
And diagnosis, adjustment, regulation, repair, overhaul, redesign of the
community-entity are legitimate functions of a government established to act
in the interests of all and “deriving its just powers from the consent of
The alleged limitations of “the free market” deserve a more extensive
examination. We will turn to that task in the following essay.
3. Market Fundamentalism
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1.Thatcher, Margaret, The Downing Street Years, Harper Collins, London.
2. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, New York: Signet,
1964, p. 103.
3.The Rise and Fall of Society. Quoted by David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer, New York:
Free Press, 1997 p. 96).
4. Ibid., p. 95.
5. Ibid, 16-17.
6. As a segment of the April 16, 2006 CBS program “60 Minutes”
showed, this is today a serious problem in China.
7. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 13
December 1968, pp. 1243-1248.
8. Ibid., p. 1244.
9. Ibid, 1244. The source from Whitehead is Science and the Modern
World, (Mentor, 1948, p. 17.)
10. Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Scales Fall,” The New Yorker,
August 2, 2010, pp 70-73.
11. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
University Press, 1971, p. 4.
12. Herman Daly, "Free Market Environmentalism: Turning a Good
Servant into a Bad Master," Critical Review, Vol. 6, No.
13. William W. Bayes, William W. 1970). “What is Property?,” The
Freeman, July 1970, p. 348