All Commentary
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Close-Knit Communities Put the Individual First

With no individual rights, there is no meaningful community, and with no community, there is nothing more than every man for himself.

Imagine yourself living in a pre-political moment, where individual rights and, by extension, property rights do not exist. The colony generally respects the things that you claim are yours, but there are a few diabolical people who have little reservation to use force and take what you have worked hard to acquire. In this place, there are no mediating institutions, nothing codified that attempts to define rights, and no titles or deeds. Power is the mediator, and the weaker individuals will stake a claim to property and pray that it is respected.

Now, imagine for a moment longer how this system would affect the ability of a community to cohere. Although most people would naturally come to respect your claim, the minority would sow seeds of discord and render cohesion impossible. Neighbors would question the motive of other neighbors. Families would have little way of ensuring land and other valuables would be passed along to future generations.

The end result is a quick descent into a zero-sum game where every man is for himself. The Fundamental Nature of Property Rights

With no property rights established, we find that next to no other rights can be reasonably protected. There is no enforcement of the right to life if a covetous heel decides he wants what you have. There is no free speech, no right to assemble, no worship if your exercise violates the sensibilities of another who has no reservation regarding the use of force. These are precisely the ingredients that make up a dystopia. With no individual rights, there is no meaningful community, and with no community, there is nothing more than every man for himself.

What is the purpose of this thought experiment, you ask? To address a particularly insidious trope that claims libertarian political theory subverts the organization of communities by emphasizing the rights of the individual. Such accusations have been levied from all across the political spectrum and all across the west. The idea goes that if we are all looking out for number one all the time, then we forget about the needs of our neighbors. The end result, in this view, is a quick descent into a zero-sum game where it is every man for himself.

Natural Rights Nurture Community

When every man knows what he works for is his, then the possibility of social cohesion becomes a reality. The image cast of a pro-individual social order is often used as a political bludgeon on unpopular legislation, from universal healthcare to a bloated welfare state. It invariably requires convincing a large share of voters that the relinquishment of a little more of your fundamental rights is necessary for the common good. Classically understood, defining the rights of the individual was intended to accomplish precisely the opposite of what proponents of statism would have you believe.

Man exists before politics and only becomes political as society organizes. Failing to define what areas of a man’s existence are his and what belongs to the collective order is a political nonstarter. This dynamic can easily be seen by looking at a first-grade classroom. If a teacher fails to establish the rights of a child by allowing him to call the property on his desk his own, then she will spend her day putting out fires from bickering about whose pencil is whose. She will never teach anything of value to those malleable minds because order was never achieved.

In this case, is it true that insisting on both the government and your neighbor to respect your individual rights is bad for society? Could it be that the twenty-five-year-old man making ten dollars an hour is wrong to believe he’s getting railroaded by being coerced to pay for programs he will never use? Quite the contrary, civil order is impossible without any lines drawn that preclude the public. When every man knows what he works for is his and, by extension, what he purchases is not subject to the appetites of his surrounding community, the possibility of social cohesion becomes a reality.

A system that protects our rights as individuals strengthens the community. Civil Order Flows from the Individual

Whether we consider the dynamics at play in a first-grade classroom or the might-makes-rights primitive era, we contend with the same human nature. If order is to be achieved, then it happens through the rights of each person or it does not happen at all. Any view that seeks to realize harmony through common ownership or by enforcing exclusive rights to certain groups is utopian nonsense that will descend into chaos.

A system that protects our rights as individuals not only strengthens the community but is actually the system that makes community possible. So much political discontent on display today can be boiled down to neighbors viewing neighbors with contempt for not “paying their fair share.” Instead, perhaps neighbors should view the government with the same contempt for taking what doesn’t belong to it. By shifting their focus, neighbors can share a cause and work together to achieve the common good that both respects the rights of the individual and values the community.

  • Michael Morris is a husband and dad who lives in Denton, Texas. His essays have appeared in the Federalist, Aleteia, and the Libertarian Catholic. He also helps manage the Facebook page of the Libertarian Catholic.