A functional libertarian political order will rise the strongest from fertile ground. To maximize individual liberty it is necessary to promote the best kind of individualism at all levels.
Controversy over the building of various mosques and the Park 51 Islamic cultural center shows the influence of anti-Muslim sentiment on United States politics. Opponents hold all Muslims responsible for crimes that a few Muslims have committed, and want to exclude them at least symbolically from America. The numerous Muslims in the New York area have all the rights of any individuals, and a new 13-story building will fit in nicely at 51 Park Place anyway – if you believe it will tower over everything, take a look at the Street View in Google Maps.
Prejudice feeds authoritarian power. Ethnic slurs were often heard in popular attempts to justify the Iraq War. Years later, a lot of people are dead or wounded, wealth was transferred from productive uses to military-industrial black holes, and the general economy is poorer because of it. Demagoguery against Obama’s blackness has been used to rally people behind right wing authoritarians, and outrageous claims against everyone who practices some version of Islam give fake populists like Newt Gingrich a platform to stand on. An enemy “other” is created for those who are included under “us” to rally against. And in this way people are placed into categories and united based on the needs of authoritarians.
Promoting an individualist view of society will create an environment most likely to foster liberty.
Libertarians will often describe the zero-aggression principle – that no person may initiate force against another – as the only requirement of libertarian society. But the zero-aggression principle implies some measure of equality if it is to apply universally. If people are regarded as somehow inferior, this will likely translate into inferiority before the zero-aggression principle. Collective guilt can mean “they” started it because they are falsely associated with the individuals who attacked the World Trade Center. And if an individual’s personhood is not valued, his rights will not be respected.
Individualism means treating every individual as an end in himself or herself, not as a means to some goal, and recognizing that individuals must be judged on their own merits.
People should not be judged on the attributes of groups they’ve been assigned to by others, but the groups that individuals choose to join do make up a part of their identity. However, the attributes that other people assign to groups individuals identify with should not be used against them. This means recognizing individual choices: those who choose a uniform or other symbol may be held to answer for what that symbol says, and al-Qaeda affiliates ought to be approached differently than people who merely fall into the broad category of Muslim.
The best kind of individualism has a broader social element to it which could be labeled solidarity. The pursuit of maximum individual liberty suggests the benefit of promoting the maximum level of individual autonomy – taking steps to reduce dependence on people who try to control others. This is where cooperation and competition both enter the picture. Recognizing the mutual benefit of cooperating for greater autonomy, free people work together in solidarity. Viewing one arrangement as less conducive toward individual flourishing, free people create competing arrangements and advocate for them.
When the diversity of groups is given priority over diversity of individuals, there is a danger of emphasizing the group over the individual (which leads in practice to favoring the dominant members of groups) and the identification of the individual with a group that he might have less in common with than he does with someone outside the group. In short, it can reinforce divisions between people by subordinating individual identity to people who are in charge of deciding identity. Then respect for a person for what they have in common with others takes precedent over respecting their individual uniqueness.
None of this should be used to say that all groupings or traditions are inherently evil. Using them as means to greater individualistic flourishing can be good. When individuals are treated as means to prop up groups or traditions – when the specific group or tradition instead of the ability to choose groups and traditions becomes the purpose of life – it is negative.
Similarly, class analyses can be very useful in determining tendencies, motivations, and likely characteristics. But it is ultimately the individual’s character and actions that determine who she is.
A hierarchical social order – where one person is ranked objectively higher than another person, is antithetical to social individualism. Certainly, hierarchies will spring up where a difference in ability or quality can be measured (a faster runner, a better painting, etc). But it is not so innocent when society in general functions through hierarchical lines. In this case individuals will not interact as equals, but the inferior will be expected to yield to the superior. Whether or not such an arrangement relies on coercion, it will make coercion easier to accomplish as the inferior is conditioned to accepting commands, and the superior feels more valuable than those supposed to be beneath him.
Hierarchy in the workplace is a microcosm of broad social hierarchy, and ought to be reduced as much as is practicable for the same reasons. While infrequent wage-work or competing bosses are not necessarily oppressive in a society where there are plenty of other options to the worker, a situation based on “kissing ass” of superiors to labor according to their goals, shaping your life around the requirements of a company you do not control, means putting decision-making power over large areas of life into the hands of other people.
In application, the political, economic, and social intersect and build off one another. Individualism that is social and solidaristic in nature, not atomistic or promoting self above others, lays the ground from which a functioning libertarian political order can most likely spring.