Without Selfish Individuals, Nothing

by | Apr 20, 2003

“Deny self and build community”–the mantra of our age. Preachers praise it. Professors teach it. Many feel tingly at the mere thought of it. But a community is not a god; it’s simply a number of individuals. As economist Ludwig von Mises observed, “Even if a chorus of people were simultaneously to say ‘We,’ it […]

“Deny self and build community”–the mantra of our age. Preachers praise it. Professors teach it. Many feel tingly at the mere thought of it.

But a community is not a god; it’s simply a number of individuals. As economist Ludwig von Mises observed, “Even if a chorus of people were simultaneously to say ‘We,’ it would still be individuals who were saying it.”

Trying to “build community” by downplaying the individual is like trying to chart galaxies by disregarding the stars.

Simply, the individual comes first.

But you can’t even know what’s proper for the individual until correctly answering such questions as: What does human life fundamentally require? How are those requirements met? Which social system best fosters this?

Human life fundamentally requires knowledge and the ability to act on it. That applies even if you were stranded alone on an island and wouldn’t change should another castaway join you. The number of people present– i.e., the existence and size of “the community”–doesn’t alter the fact that your life depends on rational thought and action.

Action in a social setting, however, requires freedom: freedom from the physical coercion of other people.

In short, human nature itself necessitates the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the only prohibition ought to be on the initiation of physical force, i.e., on violating others’ rights.

Thus, the social system commensurate with man’s nature is one that recognizes and protects individual rights– a fact that America’s founders grasped (though imperfectly). They pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor,” not to “deny self” and build community, but to advance self by acquiring liberty. Freedom is to one’s self-interest.

But communities have been forged based on the opposite principle, on self-sacrifice. Read the words of one such famous “community builder”: “This state of mind, which subordinates the interests of the ego to the conservation of the community, is really the first premise for every…human culture…. [W]e understand only the individual’s capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men.”

George Bush plugging “compassionate conservatism?” Hillary Clinton addressing the senate? No. The statements were made by Adolf Hitler.

America cannot remain the “sweet land of liberty” if Americans hold the “sweet community of servitude” as an ideal. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were filled with selfless servants who sheepishly believed that the community, not oneself, owns one’s life and that individual happiness should not be pursued but renounced.

Self-sacrifice, amazingly, results in sacrificed selves.

The joke on the community-lovers is that they would actually attain their alleged goal by doing the reverse of what they’re doing now. If instead of attacking wealth-creating productive achievers, they began honoring and emulating them, communities would resultantly be strengthened. Indeed, any group comprised of rational individuals free to produce and trade can’t help but thrive.

Why production and trade and not, say, charity and volunteerism, the standard moral currencies of the community-minded? Because not only can the latter not exist without the former, the former are what primarily advance the individual’s life.

Consider, for example, that in order for some Mother Teresa type to distribute canned goods, a selfish capitalist first had to conceive, finance, construct, and profitably operate a cannery (all while Mother Teresa types scorned him for profit-seeking).

For U2’s Bono to fly to poor countries and make snotty remarks about the very system that if they embraced would enrich them (and does enrich him), capitalists first had to create such things as airplanes, tarmacs, cameras, microphones, the sunglasses and leather pants he sports– oh, and satellites that broadcast his whimpers worldwide.

If not for self-interested individuals producing goods for profit, community-interested hander-outers wouldn’t have diddley squat to hand out– and maybe not even a ‘self’ to deny.

Wayne Dunn writes about political and cultural events from an Objectivist perspective.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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