In a recent appearance on The Rubin Report, economist, social theorist and all around hero Thomas Sowell told host Dave Rubin that one of his only criticisms of the libertarian label is that “Libertarians seem to have this atomistic view of the world, which I think is completely unrealistic, because not only in my life, but in the lives of people around me, the surroundings make a huge difference.”
In using the word “atomistic,” Sowell is repeating a long-stated conservative objection to libertarianism, namely that libertarians seek to abolish not only political hierarchies, but also all social hierarchies, including the family. This objection claims that libertarians prioritize individual freedom from all forms of authority above all else and thus believe, implicitly or explicitly, that society should be composed of atomized – that is, totally autonomous – individuals. Sowell is right to look askance at this idea, and to assert the importance of social structures to individuals. And if libertarians really hold this view of society, Sowell is right to be critical of the label.
Where does Sowell get the idea that libertarians believe in destroying all forms of authority? Sadly, from libertarians, too many of whom see their mission as not only freeing mankind from political coercion, but from all social influences and authority. Such people, for instance, hold to “libertarian parenting” – in which parental discipline is considered aggression against the child – and believe that all social pressure is as much an infringement on individual liberty as is political coercion. These so-called “thick” libertarians see libertarianism as not just a theory about the proper use of physical force; they see it as comprehensive social philosophy.
Sociologist Robert Nisbet observed that this idea is strongly associated with some schools of libertarian or classical liberal thought, writing that “By almost all of the English [classical] liberals of the nineteenth century, freedom was conceived not merely in terms of immunities from the powers of political government but, more significantly, in terms of the necessity of man’s release from custom, tradition, and from local groups of every kind.” Nisbet, like Sowell, was critical of these ideas, even though he didn’t attribute them to simple nihilism. Clearly, wrote Nisbet, these thinkers based their conclusions on a sincere desire to promote individual liberty, but had a poor “psychological and sociological conception of the conditions necessary to the development of individuality.”
Ironically, undermining the social institutions that provide the framework for the individuality that these classical liberals were pursuing ultimately undermined individuality and, consequently, liberty itself. “Even constitutional guarantees and organic laws,” Nisbet wrote, “dim to popular vision when the social and cultural identities of persons become atomized, when the reality of freedom and order in the small areas of society becomes obscure.”
While Nisbet was correct that some thinkers in the libertarian tradition have held this view of society, just as Sowell is correct in pointing out that some libertarians still hold this view today, it’s not the case that atomistic individualism is a necessary component of libertarianism. Frederic Bastiat, from the surprisingly more socially conservative French school of classical liberals, repeatedly pointed out that political freedom was not the same as social freedom. Bastiat asked, “Does it follow that [if we are free] we shall then cease to associate with each other, to help each other, to love and succor our unfortunate brothers, to study the secrets of nature, and to strive to improve ourselves to the best of our abilities?” To Bastiat the answer to this question was no, clearly showing that political freedom does not mean absolute social autonomy.
British classical liberal Lord Acton closely associated liberty and duty, including social duty, writing that “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Acton believed that “Liberty…is itself the highest political end,” but not necessarily the highest social end. Rather, as philosopher Gerard Casey recently wrote, “for libertarians, liberty is the lowest of social values, lowest in the sense of most fundamental, a necessary condition of a human action’s being susceptible of moral evaluation in any way at all.” In this way, individual liberty is foundational to society, not in competition with it. Liberty is required, wrote Acton, “for the security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” Society, which develops and communicates moral norms, is essential to liberty in Acton’s view, because “…liberty comes not with any ethical system, but with a very developed one.”
Thus, in contrast and opposition to the “atomistic” libertarians Sowell identifies, there is another group of libertarians that does not make the “socialist” mistake, as Bastiat called it, of confusing “the distinction between government and society.” Indeed, proper libertarianism understands that libertarianism’s proscription of aggression applies to a very narrow definition of aggression, one that does not include social pressure and hierarchy. Libertarianism, then, does not inevitably lead to the atomization of individuals. It concerns itself not with the destruction of social institutions and associations, but rather with their proper organization. As Casey says,
Libertarians are sometimes portrayed as if they necessarily considered social disorder to be something desirable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although there may be individual libertarians who, bizarrely, judge that a disordered, Hobbesian-state-of-nature is a consummation devoutly to be wished, most libertarians desire to live in an ordered society. The question isn’t really whether order is desirable; it is what kind of order is desirable, where that order is to come from and how it is to be maintained. For the libertarian….genuine order arises intrinsically from the free interaction among individuals and among groups of individuals; it does not descend extrinsically from on high.
Sowell, who has accomplished more for liberty than all thick libertarians put together, can be excused for balking at a label that is so often associated with people and ideas that undermine society. Too many libertarians still don’t realize that cultural conservatism, and its attendant focus on voluntary, non-state associations, is essential to the maintenance of liberty.