Individualism is much more than egotism
Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek had it right. Individualism in fact REQUIRES social co-operation
The citizens of a free society keep political power to a minimum and jealously protect individual rights. As a result a free society undermines legal privilege by removing the threat of aggression against upstarts of all kinds and preserves their autonomy. It offers the only lasting path to social progress and personal improvement for all people including those who, perhaps owing to accident of birth, may be the least well-off in society. The desire to understand how individual actions can promote the general welfare led Adam Smith to develop a theory of the free society based on the complementary forces of sympathy and self-interest.
Adam Smith on Selfishness and Sympathy
In his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.
For Smith, our ability to imagine ourselves in the place of others–sympathy–is the key to understanding why we morally approve and wish to reward or morally disapprove and wish to punish others, as well as ourselves, for particular actions.
And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. As to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us.
So in a sense, while self-interest is like an accelerator for social progress in a free society, sympathy is the brake that helps us drive even faster.
True Individualism Is Not Narrow Selfishness
Trying to preserve our individual rights to life, liberty, and property–the essentials of individualism–need not imply selfishness in the narrow sense. We can use the fruits of our freedom to help others as well as ourselves–and we do. (And evidently it makes us happier.)
But the equating of individualism with narrow selfishness persists in no small part because libertarians themselves sometimes profess an overly narrow form of individualism–one that has a “rugged, me-first attitude” at its core. (I’ve written and spoken about this before.) While I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that view or the lifestyle it implies as far as it goes, the problem is that it doesn’t really get very far. Social, economic, and cultural development depends on the evolution of complex social networks among vast numbers of people, and they have a hard time forming under an atomistic kind of individualism.
F.A. Hayek writes in his important essay “Individualism: True and False” (pdf): “. . . the belief that individualism approves and encourages human selfishness is one of the main reasons why so many people dislike it. . . .”
Thus, in an article published in the New York Times just before Independence Day, called “The Downside of Liberty,” Kurt Anderson laments:
What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.
The author raises points that may be worth pursuing another time. But what is relevant here is the equation, again, of individualism with narrow selfishness. He’s wrong, of course. But I can understand why he and others might think that way, given what people on “our side” sometimes say. A cramped individualism lends itself to the notion that libertarians, insofar as we prize individualism, must indeed be antisocial.
(Now I also think that nothing is more effective in displacing Smithian sympathy with narrow selfishness than threats against our freedoms, or when, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations . . . evinces a Design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism. . . .” So trying to use political power to make us less selfish–though, say, takings and income redistribution–may have the opposite effect.)
True Individualism Is Pro-Social
What does individualism in the tradition of Adam Smith mean? Here is F.A. Hayek again in the same essay:
What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society.
In other words, individualism is a way of seeing and understanding how we live together. Individualism is about how best to promote social cooperation. That is,
. . . there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior.
What then is the correct meaning of selfishness in the context of individualism?
If we put it concisely by saying that people are and ought to be guided in their actions by their interests and desires, this will at once be misunderstood or distorted into the false contention that they are or ought to be exclusively guided by their personal needs or selfish interests, while what we mean is that they ought to be allowed to strive for whatever they think desirable.
True individualism, then, is the opposite of paternalism in that it respects each and every person’s ability to make and evaluate her own decisions. That includes decisions on whether and under what circumstances to ask for or to give help, and what kind of help to ask for or to give, as well as whether that help was effective or not.
As a result in the history of mankind there has been no greater engine than liberty and individualism (rightly understood) for lifting the material lives of even the very poorest, as this popular video by Hans Rosling, professor of international health, brilliantly illustrates.
Now, there is a kind of broad selfishness which is indeed an essential part of individualism that, as Hayek says, is often misunderstood. He explains:
The true basis of his [the individualist’s] argument is that nobody can know who knows best and that the only way by which we can find out is through a social process in which everybody is allowed to try and see what he can do.
That social process is competition in markets free from political privilege and legal barriers. Competition of this kind is a discovery procedure in which people look for ways, via sympathy, to mutually benefit one another. It doesn’t lead to utopian perfection, but to consistent improvement in the general welfare and in individual self-actualization.
Individualism is a tried-and-true way of promoting social cooperation, not a call to shun it.
1,000 innocent victims of Big Brother Britain: Families were spied on wrongly because of blunders by officials
Almost 1,000 entirely innocent people were wrongly spied upon using anti-terror powers last year following blunders by officials, it emerged last night.
In two shocking cases, two members of the public were arrested and accused of being serious criminals.
Details of phone calls and texts by genuine crime suspects had wrongly been attributed to the pair in a terrible mix-up between police and an internet company.
Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, said the mistakes had ‘significant consequence’ for the victims.
The internet provider involved was slow to report the errors and initially gave unsatisfactory explanations as to how they occurred or what was being done to stop it happening again, Sir Paul said.
He also revealed details of a council going beyond its legal powers to use snooping laws to spy on a family suspected of cheating school catchment area rules.
The council obtained details of phone calls and texts to seek to establish if the family lived where it said, the first known case of a town hall spying on a person’s phone records over school catchment areas.
The unnamed council was not acting within the rules, which say officials must be seeking evidence for use in a criminal prosecution. Instead, the council wanted only to withdraw a school place offered to a child in the family.
The hundreds of errors made by police, town halls and the security services will raise fresh doubts about the Government’s plan for a new ‘snoopers’ charter’.
Currently, public bodies have access to details of when and where phone calls, texts and emails were sent and, in some cases, to whom. But under proposals before Parliament, this will be extended to a person’s every internet click and the details of phone calls made on Skype.
The details will be supplied by internet firms – which were responsible for around a fifth of the mistakes made last year. Most commonly, the wrong digit was attached to a phone number or internet address by police, spies or the internet firm. This leads to data on the wrong person being investigated. It is destroyed once the mistake has been identified.
Last year, there were 895 cases where communications data – details of texts, emails and phone calls – was obtained in error.
There were also 42 errors by the security services – MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – relating to undercover operations, and 42 blunders by police and other law enforcement bodies asking for warrants to intercept the details of phone calls or other data.
David Cameron said he was concerned by the errors made by organisations using the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
It was passed by Labour ostensibly to fight terrorism, but was then extended to cover a string of other public bodies, including town halls. Councils have been accused of using the powers to spy on those accused of putting their bins out on the wrong day or allowing their dog to foul the pavement.
The number of applications to obtain communications data was 494,078, which was down by 11 per cent but is still 1,350 every day.
Of these, 2,130 were made by town halls. This was up from 1,809 in 2010, despite repeated promises from ministers to curtail the use of surveillance by the so-called ‘Town Hall Stasi’.
The Home Office said: ‘Surveillance powers are a vital tool for police and security services, enabling them to catch criminals, prevent terrorist attacks and protect children. But they must be used proportionately – that is why we have blocked local authorities for accessing data for trivial purposes.’
Campaign group Liberty said the scale of surveillance revealed was ‘alarming’ and called on the Government to ‘think again about turning us into a nation of suspects rather than citizens’.
British photophobia again
Anger of primary school parents banned from photographing their own children appearing in play because of just ONE complaint
Furious parents have blasted a headteacher who banned them from taking pictures of their own children during a school play after a single complaint.
Pupils in their final year of primary school had been working hard for the last month on their end-of-term production of ‘Oliver!’
And on Tuesday 100 proud parents crammed into Blackheath Primary School, in Sandwell, West Mids., with their cameras ready to capture the occasion.
But just a few minutes before the performance was due to start, headteacher Lesley King announced nobody was allowed to film their children because one parent had complained.
Stunned mums and dads said the decision had left them and their children extremely ‘upset and disappointed’.
Geoffrey Pearsall, 48, who’s son played one of the workhouse children in the play, said: 'No-one could quite believe it. 'All the parents were looking at each other in amazement. They were not happy at all. 'This is the children’s last year in junior school and the last time a lot of them will ever see each other again. 'If one parent didn’t want to have their child filmed then that pupil could have had a lesser role.
'At the very least the school could have filmed the production and distorted the face of the pupil concerned. It’s not hard to do these days.
'But it doesn’t seem fair that we’ve got no record of it to show our son when he is older or his grandparents.'
Another parent, who did not wish to be named, added: 'Everybody was pretty upset by the decision - it was really disappointing.
'I wanted to capture the moment on film so I could make the play an everlasting memory for my son. 'But because of ridiculous red-tape these days - it put a real dampener on the occasion.
'My son said after ‘did you get any pictures of me?’ and I had to explain why I hadn’t.'
Headteacher Lesley King confirmed parents had been asked not to take any pictures or video footage during the production. She said: 'We had an objection to people taking pictures and videos for reasons that are confidential. 'I asked if parents would respect that and they did.'
Not Das vierte Reich after all?
Frau Merkel promises Jews and Muslims in Germany that circumcision WILL be allowed despite controversial court ban
Germany's Chancellor Merkel has promised Jewish and Muslim communities that they will be free to carry out circumcision on young boys despite a court ban. Last month a judge in Cologne sparked fury among religious groups by outlawing the practice on the grounds that it causes 'illegal bodily harm'.
The ban provoked a rare show of unity between Jews, Muslims and Christians who see it as a threat to religious freedom. In a country that is especially sensitive to allegations of intolerance because of the Nazis' slaughter of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, the government said it would find a way around the Cologne court ban in June as a matter of urgency.
European rabbis descended on Berlin this week to lobby against what they see as an affront to religious freedom - with the backing of Muslim and Christian leaders in an unusual show of unity, as well as the support of many German politicians.
A spokesman for the chancellor said: 'For everyone in the government it is absolutely clear that we want to have Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany. 'Circumcision carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment.'
Ruling in the case of a Muslim boy taken to a doctor with bleeding after circumcision, the Cologne court said the practice inflicts bodily harm and should not be carried out on young boys, but could be practiced on older males who give consent.
This is not acceptable under Jewish religious practice which requires boys to be circumcised from eight days old, nor for many Muslims, for whom the age of circumcision varies according to family, country and branch of Islam.
The ruling by the Cologne Regional Court applies to the city and surrounding districts with a total population of just over 2 million people. The total population of Germany is about 82 million. Cologne is home to about 120,000 Muslims, whose plans for a new central mosque has stirred anti-immigrant sentiment.
The head of the Conference of European Rabbis urged Jews in Germany to continue carrying out circumcision despite the ban. But the German Medical Association, while opposing the ban because it could drive circumcision underground with greater risk of infection through poor hygiene, advised doctors not to carry out the operation until the legal situation is cleared up as they could risk prosecution.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.