The Tyranny of Individualism versus the Liberty of Community
Posted on July 11, 2014
Absence of state coercion is not equivalent to political liberty. Political liberty is possible only when there is a series of independent social institutions that check each other’s authority. These institutions are communities. Man cannot live without community (Gen. 2:18). Aside from the Bible itself, perhaps no work in recent times has made that point more effectively than Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community. Nisbet, a communitarian-libertarian, argues that man is a communitarian being. He is made to live, laugh, work, play, love, suffer, cry, and die in a community. And he will always find communities in which to live. Communitarianism is ineluctable.
Now in the Bible and the Christian faith, that community is manifested primarily in the family and church, and secondarily in vocation (“business”) and other “private” spheres. These are the multiple communities in which people live their lives. They find their liberty in participation in various communities, each of which stands as a sentinel over its own prerogatives and provides a haven for individuals treated unjustly by other communities. If a husband is dictatorial, the wife can appeal to the church. If the church is abusive, the family can appeal to a higher church court or another church body. If a business is unjust, the individual or family can appeal to a private court system. In the case of injustice, a Christian-ordered society almost always offers recourse to another community.
The problem with the modern state is that it professes to be a community. For this reason, as Nisbet shrewdly notes, the state is not opposed to “individual freedom.” Individual freedom, far from being the effect of emancipation from state power, is, in fact, the precondition of that power. Tyrannical states do not war against the individual; they war against those non-coercive, intermediate institutions which claim the individual’s allegiance: the family, the church, the school, business, and so on. In fact, as Nisbet observes, the only freedom tyrannical societies permit is individual freedom. They desire an individual wedded exclusively to the state as an exclusive community, and offer him a certain limited sphere of “freedom.” It is not individual freedom that these tyrannies oppose, but competitors to their authority that they find unacceptable. They do not mind individual freedom; they only mind competitors to the allegiance they require of men. They are willing to give men a long leash, as long as they alone are grasping the other end.
The modern state is never at war with the individual. The state needs the individual (and it wants only the individual) for its sordid, tyrannical purposes. The state is at war with other communities that vie for man’s allegiance – the family, church, business, and so on. The state wants to wipe out all communitarian competition so that it can remake man into a pliant agent for state purposes. Men are “material” to the modern state, particularly the secular humanist state. They exist, in Mikhail Heller’s language, to be “cogs in the wheel” of a massive, utopian state enterprise.
In other words, the state wants a monopoly on community. Libertarians err if they suppose that the center of the statist program is economic monopoly – exclusive ownership and distribution of goods and services. Statist economic monopoly is easy once it is has seized a communitarian monopoly. When people’s lives, hopes and aspirations are severed from family, church, and vocation, they are an easy prey for the state. The state will permit great latitude to these individuals, just as long as they do not create, or divert their allegiance to, other communities.
In these communities, people willingly exercise and live under authority. As rulers, they act as humble servants to (not dictators over) those for whom they are responsible (Mk. 10:42-45). As subjects, they honor and obey those in authority (Heb. 13:17).
But trouble brews when politics becomes a community — because it soon will lust to be the only one.