On Individualism, Rights, and Social Order
Reflections on the importance of sociological conservatism in the stability of social order.
The purpose of this article is to reflect on the reasons why I consider myself on the right, the Old Right of the pre-World War II years, while considering myself a friend and fellow traveler with certain libertarians but entirely distrustful of the lot of them.
The great problem for me personally was the strict logic of the private property principle and the absoluteness that its adoption seems to demand. Talk of “coercion” and “voluntarism” and “rights” and even “liberty” itself were all subsidiary to the logic of private property ownership. And indeed, if libertarianism is going to mean anything important, it must be first and foremost about property. Coercion is defined in terms of property rights, and liberty flows from the logical boundaries of the meaning and extension of one’s ability to employ the use of his property as he sees fit. This is the great and stimulating challenge of the libertarian property rights doctrine. And the logic of this “propertarianism” ought to play a major role in any serious understanding of the problem of a social order.
Conservatives who ignore the logic and influence of property ownership doctrine do so to their own peril. This is why the staunch conservative Richard Weaver, himself quite a civilizational pessimist (which is refreshing in our time of giddy proclamations of the human triumph of cheap material consumption), called private property the “last metaphysical right” that would need to play a centerpiece role in the prevention of social disintegration in our time.
Historically, the debate over “rights” and their nature and origin can be seen in a variety of traditions. Rights-rhetoric blossomed and took on their modern meaning during the enlightenment. This was a result of the talk of freeing the individual from the institutions that surrounded him, that he was born into. Jean Jacque Rousseau argued that man was everywhere chained and oppressed. Libertarians might be tempted to interpret this as a critique of state-domination. The opposite is the case. Rousseau saw the state as the medium of man’s release from the private institutions; nothing, for Rousseau, ought to stand in the way of the free and full expression of the individual. Not religious conviction, not family commitments, not community obligations, not legal custom, and not behavioral convention. The fulfillment of this framework of “release” was the French Revolution.
What Rousseau saw as man-in-chains, Edmund Burke saw as man born into the context of a specific social order that was anthropoligically necessary for the development of his person. Burke had never, he explained, met a "man in the state of nature." It’s true that the state historically played a role in this order, especially in Burke's time, but man was protected from the raw power of the state by a nexus of integrated and balanced mediating institutions; some of which clashed from time to time but in any case, the individual was always under the umbrella of the associations and communities and institutions in which he found his social identity.
What Burke predicted, indeed what defined the spirit of conservatism in the age of revolutions, was that, to the extent that the revolution was pointed at the release of man from his social context, man would end up laying prostrate before the almighty state; there would be no shelter, no balance of powers, just man against the hot steel of Power. Sociological individualism, the belief that society is a great collection of individuals pooled together, rather than a nexus of mediating institutions, was the path to collectivism and the New Politics of mass. Such is the great paradox of man’s release in the Liberal age.
Sociological individualism, therefore, should not be confused with the use of individualism in other disciplines and sciences. In economics we reflect on the logic of acting man and refer to this as methodological individualism; in ethics we uphold the responsibility of individual agents; in epistemology we emphasize that only individual persons think. But as Nisbet drove home in his Sociological Tradition, the historical analysis of the sound society analyzed the nexus of institutions and groups, while the modern pursuit of the release of the individual from the historical backdrop of his person was not a shift toward freedom and stability, but toward crises civilizational and individual.
Rights, therefore, for Thomas Paine, Rousseau, and others in the milieu of the French-style spirit of “liberty,” were abstract and universal, applicable to all men in a way that preceded and transcended historical development and the imperfect nature of man’s living context. At all costs, these rights were to be the animating spirit of the pursuit of the better world and history was interpreted as the grand theater of man progressing upward toward the light (to use Rothbard’s elegant phrasing).
Burke was aghast at such prospects: the very fact that all the users and philosophers of rights-rhetoric could not agree on what these rights actually were, combined with the historical observation (equally as true in our contemporary age) that most men wouldn’t care enough to think deeply about such matters, the revolutionary pursuit of an abstract liberty against the restraints of a thousand years of developed convention would prove damaging, not triumphant.
Burke thus preferred the historical appeals, on the basis of English common law, of the American secessionists. Social development and political change is inevitable and sometimes desperately needed (Burke was a fan of the English 1688 revolution), but to the extent that society and civilization is precious and can be torn apart, to that extent upheaval should be treated with extreme caution. Hence, while the Americans were diverse in their philosophy of rights (Paine himself was a pamphleteer of the American revolution), there was also a spirit of reference to English tradition in the appeal to their rights. Burke argued on behalf of the realism of common law rights, rather than the idealism of abstract propositional rights. Only men grounded in their social contexts would be able to secure their freedom in the concept of a social order.
The thought of Edmund Burke and his picture of the nature of political communities can be a bit twisted for the libertarian who came to understand political problems in the tradition of Murray Rothbard. But consider a few observations. Hans Hoppe, a synthesizer of Rothbardian property-rights logic, often appeals to the idea that property rights are conventions of human ingenuity; they are intended to solve a specific problem of determination of the use of scarce resources. Property ownership rights are the result of men agreeing to live peaceably without resorting to war and conquest. Civilization develops in the dynamic of men either living peaceably or resorting to conquest. Because some men, in some historical settings, have preferred the use of conquest over peace, communities would be established for the sake of defense and security. One can read Hoppe’s meta-narrative of the development from local judges to aristocrats to monarchs to democratic states here.
Hoppe treated the idea of a covenant community in more detail in chapter ten of his Democracy: The God that Failed. He took a modern spin on what was arguably the foundation of European civilization upon the collapse of the Roman Empire. Families were a basic social unit, families grew beyond the nuclear family, kinship became an organic organizing principle, and clans were birthed from this point to their agreement to work with other clans and organize areas of common culture and norms. Children were born into family units and family units had rules and micro-norms. The participation of family units in greater spheres of communities were conditioned on rules and micro norms. And so forth. Hoppe’s covenant community model is, basically, this.
The question, then, is whether the covenant community transcends the life of its founding members. The answer is obvious: property is at every stage set within the jurisdictional contexts and definitions of a specific legal-social order. One would have to abandon the geographical location to break free from the requirements of the community. Or, if the rules were constantly challenged, banishment was an extremely common practice throughout the Western World.
It did not make sense in this medieval social order for one to act as a sociological individualist. Man was born into a setting of a balance of rights and obligations. This model of a community order is indeed a model, and some historical communities before the age of absolute monarchs and national states were closer to this than others, which had been conquered by invading kings and kingdoms. Thus, history, in all its imperfections, is chock full of the evils of man and the desire for power. The rise of conquering central states which denied to local areas the ability to practice their own legal customs was a key aspect in the inorganic development away from the medieval period of Western Europe.
It is not just Hoppe, then, who saw in medieval Europe a more natural and organic development of human society in which sociological individualism was absurd. Nisbet and Weaver especially among conservatives look here as well, not, as the critics mindlessly charge, in a way that romanticizes the past, but in a way that gives indication to the solving of the problem of political community.
Now, the enlightenment and the age of liberalism contained a general spirit of releasing individual man from the social contexts of his past. Nisbet, in chapter ten of his important The Quest for Community, makes the brilliant (and personally quite influential) observation that when the well-intentioned (even personally traditionalist) liberal philosophers such
“Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and Jefferson [were formulating the principles of classical liberalism], the image of man luminous in their philosophical mind was an image constructed out of such traits as sovereign reason, stability, security, and indestructible motivations toward freedom and order. Man, abstract man, was deemed to be inherently self-sufficing, equipped by nature with both the instincts and the reason that could make him autonomous.”
But they made a grave and profound mistake:
What we see now with the advantage of hindsight is that, unconsciously, the founders of liberalism abstracted certain moral and psychological attributes from a social organization and considered these the timeless, natural, qualities of the individual, who was regarded as independent of the influences of any historically developed social organization.
Those qualities that, in their entirety, composed the eighteenth-century liberal image of man were qualities actually inheriting to a large extent in a set of institutions and groups, all of which were aspects of historical tradition.
The era of “release” therefore, separated Western Man from the long social past that crafted the context of his person. Man without the institutions that would guide and mold him would fall into decay and incentivize him to cling to the growing omnipotent state; society as a collection of individuals, which is the end game of “release” is what Jose Ortega y Gasset called the Revolt of the Masses. The rise of sociological individualism is the rise of political collectivism. As man’s release from the past, from institutions (even local governments) other than the central state, nears fulfillment, so will be fulfilled the totalitarian domination of the masses.
The rise of modern libertarianism, therefore, is a historical tragedy. It is the appeal to abstract rights in a civilizational setting that has abandoned the real foundations of social stability; that has separated these mediating institutions from the influence against the problem of political power in the form of the state. Libertarianism, as it is most commonly perceived, only makes interpretive sense as a movement in the age of sociological individualism. It did not come to the mind of the social theorists of prior ages because only when men sit naked as individuals before the magnificent power of the modern administrative state do they cling in understandable desperation to propositional abstractions.
Thus, because men sit as individuals under the power of the modern state with no mediating protection, their rights can only be articulated with reference to the relationship between himself and the state. This makes many of the rights fought for, while logically accurate presuming property ownership, a source of social tension and at odds with the health and stability of the community. It is often stated that "society does not have rights, only individuals do," but this is made most meaningful because it takes place in the age of individual release from older social arrangements; it is therefore constantly a source of social tension and disharmony.
The transition to a democratic order, as I've argued previously, was a tragedy not merely because “majority vote undermines rights” as even many libertarians understand, but because it rips apart traditional balance-of-authority structures and politicizes what was once an organic nexus of social relations built on a developed landscape of cascading authorities that emphasizes duties and responsibilities that simply cannot be recovered in the modern liberal social order. Libertarianism arose thusly in this historical setting.
As post-enlightenment man continues to revolt against the memory of his Western past, in all its obligations and extra-personal and intergenerational commitments, his pursuit of freedom is a soft breath against a global apparatus that gleefully aids in the destruction of historical memory. What do you think the push for sexual confusion as an experience of courage will result in if not renewed revolt against the dying concept of the family as the unit of social order?
Nisbet balanced the importance of individuality with community when he wrote:
We know no conception of individuality is adequate that does not take into consideration the myriad ties which normally bind the individual to others from birth to death.
As an abstract philosophy, individualism was tolerable in an age when the basic elements of social organization were still strong and psychologically meaningful. In fact, whatever its theoretical inadequacy, the philosophy of individualism may be said to have had a kind of pragmatic value in an age when the traditional primary relationships were, if anything, too strong, too confining. Today, however, the philosophy of [sociological] individualism lacks even pragmatic justification. For the prime psychological problems of our age, the practical problems that is, are those not of release but of reintegration.
The continued and stubborn rejection by Movement Libertarians and their impulse of release from the customs and norms of yesterday is their self-generated obstacle. They are not ready to talk about rights. They will, for the foreseeable future, scoff at the sage wisdom of Richard Weaver when he said of modern man that he
manifestly does not speak the language of duty, but of indulgence. The notion that obligations are tyrannies and that wants, not deserts, should be the measure of what one gets has by now shown its destructive power. We have tended to ignore the inexorable truth that rights must be earned…. Man, then, perfects himself by discipline, and at the heart of discipline lies self-denial.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.