When individuality kills

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Daily Friend on 1 February 2024

I am an unapologetic political, moreover liberal, individualist. As far as I am concerned, this is the only legitimate position one can hold as regards politics. But many people errantly believe that if you are an individualist in one sense, you demand individuality in all senses. This is incorrect, as often, in certain contexts, individualism can be deadly.

Some people, perhaps understandably, get confused about the simultaneous liberal attachment to the ideas of individualism and spontaneous order.

Individualism, stripped to its essentials, is the insistence that every individual must be taken on the merits over which they have control – their individuality. We therefore cannot judge someone for ‘being Somalian’, because they had no say over the matter of where they were born. But we can judge them for ‘being Islamist’, for example, as they do have a say over what values they subscribe to.

Spontaneous order, also most basically, is the idea most closely associated with FA von Hayek: that order need not be planned or designed, but that it will come about through the free interaction of people and communities. Language is an archetypal example of a spontaneous order. Only a few languages – including Afrikaans – have a ‘governing council,’ but these are persuasive at best and do not truly direct where a language goes in terms of development.

Individualism, to contemporary critics, is (errantly) associated with atomism: the individual stripped of all social and cultural bonds and contexts. Spontaneous order, on the other hand, is rightly regarded as an intensely social phenomenon.

But individualism is often misconstrued. It does not, in fact, stand in a tense relationship with spontaneous order, for spontaneous order – as a phenomenon of society – is only truly possible within the context of a liberal individualist dispensation – as a phenomenon of state.

Liberal individualists, then, do not insist on individuality under all circumstances.

Individuality on the road

After all, inappropriate individuality can be deadly.

Aside from aesthetics – your car can be any colour you desire, for example, – being ‘an individual’ in traffic is socially undesirable. You must, from the moment you exit your driveway, become a cog in a well-oiled machine. In fact, traffic is perhaps the best manifestation of the metaphor ‘go with the flow.’

This does not mean you ‘obey the rules of the road’ – far from it! It means you assimilate into the reality of the road as you find it. If you get on the highway and most of those around you are speeding at 190 kilometres per hour – in flagrant violation of the rules – you are not making a brave stand for order by muddling along at 110 kilometres per hour.

You, not the rule breakers, are placing your own and others’ lives in mortal danger. You are an agent of chaos, because you are going against the spontaneous order you find yourself in.

The same applies, of course, if you enter the highway with your brand-new Ford Mustang and discover that most other motorists are slowpoking along at a measly 80 kilometres per hour. You are to submit yourself to that reality and become an indistinguishable part of the collective. By going faster, in line with the supposed purpose of a highway, you are pleading for death.

You stop being J Doe, law-abiding citizen, when you get on the road, and become Road User Number 5344-1(d), an automaton without individuality who must function with the traffic as it is, not as you might wish it to be. There is no room for wishes or desires or personalities on the road. The lone individual complying with the law, just like the lone individual not complying with the law, is the one at fault. The majority – the collective – determines how one must behave in traffic.

This can be extrapolated to various other contexts, especially in the professional world.

If you are a member of a work team, your entitlement to be an individual is necessarily limited, in some contexts more than others. The research and production team on a new medicine would need to operate largely as a collective.

If all people can just, fully, ‘be themselves’ under all circumstances, society would simply fall apart. Being a person in society is necessarily an act of adaptation and assimilation. Only when we leave society fully – and leave all the benefits it offers – do we get to ‘be ourselves’ entirely, although that would be a terribly unfulfilling experience.

State and society

But these examples – traffic, professions, and so forth – are all concerned with society, not the state. Some people might suggest the state as being a normal social phenomenon, but that is not quite true.

As Felix Morley wrote pertinently, ‘The State, in short, subjects people, whereas Society associates them voluntarily.’

Whereas we need to necessarily limit our individuality in society – and we need to do so ourselves – we need to vociferously and unapologetically insist upon our individuality as regards the state.

Liberal individualism is not opposed to coordination, to order, or to society. Liberal individualism is a very specific response to a very specific problem.

The state is aggressive violence that has been perfected. This violence is almost unanimously regarded as legitimate, and only to be used by the state. If others did what the state does – from printing money, to beating people up and throwing them in cages – society would quickly dispose of them without much fanfare. ‘The state’ is what we call the exception to this natural reaction.

Because its very nature – from its constitution to its financing and its sustainability – is coercive, the state does not, and can never, be approached with the same deference and consideration we afford other social phenomena.

Why is the state exceptional?

The state, firstly, expects and compels obedience without exception. No person anywhere in the world is ‘stateless’ in the true sense of that word. Even if you are a citizen or a national of no land, some state is exercising formal legal authority over you. Even if you venture into the territories of isolated tribes, what you will find there are primitive institutions that look and act like – and as such, in fact are – states. Those tribes will have some mechanism of ‘subjecting’ you, rather than merely ‘voluntarily associating’ with you.

The state, secondly, expects and compels people to contribute financially to its maintenance. Taxation is found everywhere on the planet, and in no country may one opt out of all tax. Even foreigners, if they earn an income or purchase goods in the country they live in, must pay taxes into that state’s government coffers.

More specifically, it is individual compliance that is demanded by the state.

It is not, to take the crude racial collective categories of South Africa, ‘the whites’ or ‘the blacks’ who pay taxes or who are (formally) subject to law. Every individual – the legal subject – is expected to pay taxes, be that income tax or company tax or sales tax.

If Patrice Motsepe evades taxes, the South African Revenue Service will not sue ‘the blacks’ – it will take action against Motsepe. If Rob Hersov parks his car illegally, the metro police will not fine ‘the whites’ – it will fine Hersov.

The state demands compliance with its edicts from the individual. If every individual is expected to obey the state equally, and every individual is equally expected to pay taxes, the state must treat the individual as such. The state cannot rightly bind us as individuals but treat us as collectives.

Where the state has attempted to flout this rule, our humanity has resisted. If political collectivism were a legitimate phenomenon, black Americans would have been wrong to fight for civil rights because the collective majority (the white electorate) had determined that they should be suppressed – despite the fact that black individuals were bound to pay taxes and obey the laws.

But within this framework of liberal individualism, there necessarily exists freedom of association – the individual’s right to embrace and maintain social and collective bonds. This is why a club may have very seemingly ‘unfair’ rules of admission, but because we are not coerced into obeying the club (when not on its property) or contributing to its welfare, we do not (and may not) hold it to the same standard as the state. 

Liberal individualism is the framework in which peaceful and voluntary collectivism thrives and spontaneous order develops.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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