Thursday, October 14, 2010

Individuals, Communities, Society and the State

So I’m an individual. I don’t think many people are going to argue otherwise – at least not credibly. The fact that I am individual is very important to my thinking, and to my political identity as a Libertarian. Yet despite my standing as an individual, I don’t doubt for one second that I am an individual whose life is dependent on being part of society.

See, the shoes I stand up in, the clothes I wear, the house I live in – they are all dependent for their existence on the expertise of others. Likewise, I did not farm the food I eat and did not brew the booze I sup. The computer on which I type was built by someone else, as was the application that allows me to type this in such a way in which you can read it. My life is dependent upon others within society.

The quality of life is also enhanced by interacting with others in society. I’m not the most outgoing of people, but I value my wife, my friends and other members of society with whom I interact. Again, my life is not a vacuum – it needs others to make it worthwhile.

And my opinions also do not emerge from a vacuum – they were created, enhanced and adapted through interactions with others. They evolve, they change as I hear viewpoints of others – regardless of whether I agree with those people or not. Intelligent thinking and opinion-forming is not simply a solitary activity – it is enhanced through hearing the thoughts and opinions of others.

So yeah, I’m an individual. But I’m also dependent upon a community. And so is pretty much everyone else in this country, unless they live as a completely self-sufficient hermit in the middle of nowhere.

Yet I want to be able to choose which parts of society I wish to interact with. I want to be able to choose which communities I wish to participate in. I don’t want anyone else telling me what I should be doing – I want to be able to choose for myself using my own intellectual faculties what parts of our society makes my life better. Which is why I believe in community, and society, but not in the state (at least not in its current form).

When you hear Cameron talking about the Big Society, or Miliband going all Platonic and talking about the Good Society, you should be very, very concerned. For what they are talking about is not the type of society or community that might arise naturally from people choosing to interact based on what makes life better. They are proposing a top-down “society” – one based on whatever the party in charge believes is best for the people in this country. Society is not, and should not, be a creation of the state – if anything, the opposite is true.

The nonsense of state-created society is that it is predicated on the idea that millions (in this country, over 60 million) people can all be treated in the same way, and that all will have identical concepts of what is good and what can enhance their lives. This is, of course, ridiculous. You will struggle to find a family of four who agree on what is best, let alone a country of millions. So what happens? What version of the “good” or the life-enhancing is chosen? The type that happens to correspond to the idiosyncratic view of the incumbent leader. In its starkest terms, the community or society that you live in and have to interact with is only a personal choice in its most narrow possible definition, in that it is the choice of a Gordon Brown or a David Cameron.

Which is precisely why I want to see the state being reduced to a minimal possible level in order to allow for more organic and natural societies and communities to arise in this country. I’m not an anarchist – I’m not calling for the abolition of the state – but I am calling for a fundamental redefinition of the state to allow people to be freer.

Of course, values and morality will very from person to person, and from situation to situation. This means that there will be conflicts in any group or society – and some of those conflicts will be irreconcilable and will need independent, external arbitration. That is the part a redefined state could play. As political philosopher John Gray puts it:
“...having a life in common cannot mean living in a society unified by common values. It means having common institutions through which the conflicts of rival values can be mediated.”
Now, I do not expect a state limited to this level to be always independent, and I do not believe that it would always make decisions with which I could agree. But a state that allows for a plurality of beliefs and communities is a far better scenario than what we have now – a succession of governments who believe in the impossible: that they will be able to find a “way”, a “truth”, a blueprint for society that will work for each and every one of the millions of people in this country.

I want to be able to choose which communities I live in and interact it. I want to be free to do that. Every flawed, arrogant attempt to build a society implemented by government denies me that right.

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At 9:35 am , Blogger Bucko said...

Those of use who want to live free of the state take on a great deal of responsibility. We acknowledge that our choices in life shape our future hand have an effect on the people we interact with.
The big state takes on these choices and responsibilities (or gives the illusion of) from the people.
Some people, like us, want to control the choices and responsibilities in our lives and are willing to make the extra effort to ensure we do the right thing.
Other people are happy to abdicate their chioce to someone else in order to rid themselves of hard choices and blame for mistakes, making thier lives easier (or the illusion of).
The trouble is there are so many more of this type of people. And when they see someone try to break free of the state, they clammour to have them brought back down to their own level, rather than re-assess their own situation - they opt for the easy road.

At 4:02 pm , Blogger jaljen said...

Perhaps I'm naive but I think Cameron & Co do hope to reduce the range and power of the state. Many of these idiotic quangoes are to be abolished and my interpretation of the Big Society (tempted to think of it as a group of rather large undergraduates) is a society where individuals take on more personal responsibility so that state intervention can be reduced. This does put the onus on the more fortunate to make a greater contribution than simply coughing up tax revenues and employing a do-gooder but that's the responsible way.

At 4:25 pm , Blogger TonyF said...

Excellent post.

We are all unique, just like everyone else.

Our 'modern' society does depend on all those that pay into it for it to work. I certainly do not object paying the computer builder for constructing the machine I am working (ahem) on now. I don't object to paying for schools, defence, police, and healthcare.
What I do object to paying; is for the bone idle, the feckless, and other parasites that have their sticky fingers in society's pot. This includes many of our 'leaders'.


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