Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Libertarian Community

What I am posting below is a copy of the speech I gave to open up the first Students For Liberty Conference at Columbia University this past February. The purpose of this speech was to address a common misunderstanding of libertarian thought: that libertarianism is antithetical to the community. Overcoming this misunderstanding is absolutely crucial in my mind to promoting the ideals of libertarianism in society

The Libertarian Community

By Alexander McCobin

I would like to introduce this Conference to you by taking a moment to address a seeming contradiction in the Conference’s existence. The philosophy of libertarianism is an individualistic philosophy. It recognizes the individual as the agent of action in the world and so prioritizes the status of the individual above all else. For many, the community is often regarded as the antithesis of the individual, for the community to exist, the individual must be sacrificed for the sake of the community. Because of this, a libertarian community seems to be an oxymoron. However, I would like to present a different perspective. It is not a unique perspective. Nor are my insights truly original. Rather, I merely wish to develop what has been presented by others before me, that only through liberty of the individual is community in the truest sense of the word possible.

I do not believe I am the only person who has had friends joke that my attempt to organize libertarians is a contradiction. They say that a philosophy of individualism makes the notion of a group of individuals contradictory. But is the notion of a libertarian organization contradictory? The answer is a resounding “No.” Most organizations to which we belong are libertarian. In fact, the most basic form of community is naturally libertarian. Human association requires that we engage one another as free and equal individuals. The use of force to achieve obedience to a preset conception of the community does not produce bonds between humanity. It breaks them. A community that only exists by force is no community at all. This is not revolutionary. But this is not understood by the majority either. And this is one of the greatest threats to the philosophy of liberty to date.

Someone once pointed out to me that the term ‘socialism’ is one of the greatest misnomers in history. Socialism does not embrace society; quite the opposite. Socialism opposes social power and instead takes the state as primary. To believe in society is to believe that the state is not necessary to regulate conduct.

We must challenge these misunderstandings and present a comprehensive explanation of why this must be done rather than leave individuals to act on their own and internalize the costs of the injustices against themselves. Before any change can be accomplished, a new interpretation of the association between the individual and the community must be made, one that neither sacrifices the individual to the community, nor ignores the existence of a community.

But what of a community of individuals not merely regulated by libertarian beliefs, but that is based on endorsing these beliefs? I believe that this libertarian community is at once both weaker and stronger than other communities that are antithetical to such a belief system. It is weaker because we do not have the tangible goal that others offer. The left offers the image of utopia where are all are equal. The right offers a virtuous society where all act according to moral principles. North of the center, we cannot offer a clear picture of our world because the nature of liberty does not allow us to predict the future. It is unknown because people control their own destinies. The writers and philosophers do not shape society in their vision. What we must do is present a deeper and more elaborate portrayal of how this utopian vision is greater than those presented by the enemies of liberty.

This community is stronger, however, in that we offer a philosophically coherent system that no others endorse. Whereas authoritarianism is riddled with contradictions and communities focused on winning a particular election often care nothing for philosophy at all, the libertarian community is continually analyzing itself, reevaluating its actions and beliefs so that there is a common bond between every person and action. Whereas others rely on each other for particular issues and care more about image than substance, the libertarian community relies on the coherence of its philosophy. And it is this strength that we must constantly come back to and call upon one another for.

I spoke at the beginning about reinterpreting the relationship between the community and libertarianism. There is a need to adopt a new belief that the only form of community is a libertarian form and for liberty to spread, we must embrace the community in this sense. This Conference is an example of this new belief. We are here today as a community. We have chosen to associate with one another because of our common beliefs and no one can take that away. The community is not greater than the sum of its parts. But at the same time the dynamics of group action provide direction and allow for a greater product than individual action alone. The lessons from Adam Smith’s A Wealth of Nations did not end with the idea that the pursuit of individual interest benefited the group. Rather, as the individual is the foundation of the group, the group is valuable to the advancement of the individual when applied in the proper ways. This is why open borders benefit nations and the free flow of ideas from interaction between people advances humanity as a whole. The work of Ayn Rand did not present humankind as necessarily separated from one another. Rather, she depicted a utopian society where humans respected each other for being free and equal agents that could not legitimately initiate force against others. These lessons cannot be ignored and must rather be advanced to better inform our belief of liberty in today’s world.

There is a need for libertarianism to advance itself both pragmatically and theoretically in regards to the community. Theoretically, we must develop a firm conception of the group that elucidates the priority of individual action and strengthens the core principles of liberty within it. Practically, we must come together and advance the cause of liberty in the real world. No longer can we remain atomized and simply hope for the best. There are threats to liberty all around us and too often we are unable to do anything because we do not have the appropriate support. In a community premised upon a common philosophy, our strength is reaffirmed when we are reminded of the value of our philosophy. Events like this Conference that brings people together to talk about the ideas of liberty or remind us of the injustices of the world constitute one means of developing support for liberty. But at all times we must speak up on behalf of liberty.

When you all leave, I hope you have the motivation to take the cause of liberty to your respective campuses and careers, promoting it in whatever way you think is best. It is not so much the technicalities of liberty that matter, but the belief that liberty matters.

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