Liberty Matters

Individualism, Independence, and Egotism

In his brilliant essay, Clemens Schneider presents a convincing view of liberalism as focused “on cooperation, on dependence as a source of wealth, knowledge, emancipation, and peace”. Many imprecise and dangerous words plague the public debate, but “independence” may be a particularly dangerous one. It is very popular in the economic context: for example, “energy independence” is a goal for most of our contemporaries. The same is true for independence for rare earth elements, or for this or that technology, such as advanced microchips, telecommunications, and artificial intelligence, to mention a few.
Hence when it comes to independence in the economic context “crude, solipsistic individualism and the cult of egotism” seems to be more a matter of nation states, than for individuals. It leads to autarky, a condition that politicians like to advertise as the ultimate outcome of their policies - even in spite of it being a rather miserable state.
Schneider contrasts Mises’s vision of cooperation to Ayn Rand’s, who thought “to be free, a man must be free of his brothers”. He seems to think Rand was a cat person, and Mises a dog person - and classical liberals had better be dog persons. As a believer in feline supremacy, I am uneasy with that.
A few of us marvel at the accomplishments of human cooperation - alas, we are not many, while most take it for granted. But we marvel at such accomplishments, because as a rule, and for its most important part, this cooperation happens under the auspices of the price system without the participants acknowledging it. Famously, we address ourselves not to the humanity of the brewer, of the butcher and of the baker, but to their self-love.
Idioms of politics are indeed a complicated matter - and the call for individual “independence” is, I think, rather more nuanced than a sort of miniaturized version of the call for national, economic independence. Self-reliant, independent individuals are not necessarily eating only the fruits of their garden. And perhaps a market society needs individuals thinking of themselves as self-reliant individualists.
Schneider starts his essay by quoting Gertrude Himmelfarb, who was a great historian of Victorian virtues. Self-reliance, not in the sense Mises uses, of stubborn economic independence, but in the sense of one’s being reliant on her own efforts and ability may be necessary for a free society to prosper and perhaps even to subsist. Its opposite, I suppose, is not a proper appreciation of the role of other individuals in our life: but a rather parasitic attitude towards the community, if not the government altogether.
I agree wholeheartedly that classical liberals, Mises being the classical liberal par excellence, have a realistic picture of the individual, warts and all, and do not dream of Übermenschen. Yet liberalism needs, from time to time, the contributions of people who go against the grain. Mises was a case in point, Pareto and Rand are others who come to mind. Passionate naysayers, who expose the complacency of consensus. That’s what great business innovators do: they navigate upwind and they enjoy it. A free society needs cat persons.
It is true that we should not forget that a certain set of behaviors underpins a free society. “Kindness, trust, and optimism” are certainly important. But so is a strong preference for self help, an appreciation of life as an adventure, a desire for making it through, and perhaps feeling a little bit ashamed of being dependent not on voluntary cooperation of other people in the market, but of charity and government aid. In many ways, one of the casualties of socialism was precisely this culture - which is threatened by the milder versions of socialism we practice today too. 
Let us consider another quote from Ayn Rand, this time from Francisco D’Anconia’s speech on money.
“When you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing - When you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors - When you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you”, in short: when everything is dependent not on human cooperation but on politics, whatever the glowing words it is using, and individualism is passé, “You may know that your society is doomed.”
I suspect Ludwig von Mises would have agreed, and my friend Clemens Schneider too.