No man is an island. We all need each other to prosper and thrive. Nobody can create a market by himself, without other people with whom to engage in trade. Does this mean that the individual is insignificant, and it is the community or society that matters most? In the politics of inequality, does this mean that we should all share the available wealth and in that way, by building the bonds of society, we will eradicate inequality?
You'd think that the way out of poverty would be to ask 'how can I help my fellow man' but it turns out that the opposite is true, and it is the spirit of individualism that drives people's efforts to lift themselves and others out of poverty: the 'anarchy of individualism' is the solution to inequality:
Rose Wilder Lane is surprising to the modern reader. She doesn't fit neatly into either of the opposing camps that we are by now accustomed to in the modern world: one comprising rich and greedy people who are utterly selfish and care nothing for the troubles of the poor; and the other comprising the righteous and the worthy who spend all their time wringing their hands in despair and bemoaning the excesses of capitalism. She defended capitalism and individualism, but she was also concerned for the plight of the poor, having grown up poor herself. She saw individualism as the best way to emerge from poverty and reduce inequality. This is really odd to the modern eye. These days it's impossible to embrace the thought pattern in Give Me Liberty: if you support capitalism you are required to care nothing for the poor, and if you care for the poor you are required to eschew individualism. Those trying to forge a different path, to see individualism as a way out of poverty, end up being very intellectually lonely. The conservatives hate them (too bleeding heart, with all that sobbing about poverty and inequality) and the liberals hate them even more (too in love with the free market, committing unforgivable sins like reading Hayek).
Rose Wilder Lane described much that was infuriating about income inequality, so you'd expect her to fit nicely in the 'righteous and worthy' communitarian camp calling for the government to do more to fix all our problems. But instead, she defended individualism, capitalism and liberty. She must have been a really brave woman, defying stereotypical expectations and flying free without a prefabricated Social Identity Group.
To a modern audience, there are three major difficulties with her ideas about the ‘anarchy of individualism’. First, the word ‘anarchy’ is a bit unsettling for modern tastes. It has a chaotic and untidy ring to it. It doesn’t sound like it would be a very orderly way of going about things. We expect our economic systems to be neat and tidy, so that everyone knows exactly whom to sue for compensation if anything goes wrong.
Second, under Rose Wilder Lane's proposal the poor would enjoy greater abundance, which is good, but the rich would also have a more abundant life, which is unacceptable to the modern social justice warrior. Today social justice entails improving conditions for the poor by ensuring that the rich are worse off. After all, poverty is a relative concept so if you bring down the rich it follows that everyone else is less poor. That way we can compensate for the historical wrongs suffered by the poor: bring down the rich people who have been far too privileged for far too long and make them apologize on their way out. One of the most important developments of Modern Civilisation is the ability to put pressure on other people to issue apologies for historical wrongs committed by their ancestors, hence the rich should be made to say sorry for their inheritances great or small. Give Me Liberty fails to account for this. It seems that Rose Wilder Lane was not interested in bringing anybody down, only in building everybody up.
The third obvious problem is that the ‘anarchy of individualism’ offers no meaningful role for the law to play. In the days of the Wild West, there was no government. If you didn't watch out for your own affairs, you would just have to starve or something. These days we have a ready-made big government and accordingly policies must be found for the government to implement.
A proposal for reducing economic inequality that does not place law and policy in the driving seat is doomed to fail. Those of us who have dedicated our lives to the academic study of law have come to appreciate that well-functioning competitive markets can only exist with ample support from a well-designed set of rules and regulations. The more rules, the better. Yet there are mavericks out there implying that perhaps the law is trivial, that perhaps the world would carry on turning just the same without all the rules and regulations lawmakers are busy churning out every day to guide other people as they go about their business. Even if law is not required for markets to function, then at least it is required to save all the innocent people from the excesses of unconstrained markets. One way or the other, in a civilised society the law must play a significant role in this game. Not just so we can have something to keep busy with at work every day, no – it is more about our dedication to fairness and justice. We all know that human beings are incapable of arriving at fair and just outcomes without the law to guide them very firmly and punish them when necessary. That’s why we like the law to be mandatory. Law must have some bite, otherwise what’s the point of it?
That's the way we have come to understand the world, and in that worldview Give Me Liberty seems utterly radical. Upholding the anarchism of individualism with no concern for orderliness and streamlining everyone into a socially acceptable identikit personality; supporting growth and prosperity for all, whether rich or poor, and relying on the individual spirit instead of law and government to achieve this. What kind of hope, what kind of optimism, what kind of faith in humanity, must Rose Wilder Lane have had, to see any beauty in a world created by the anarchy of individualism? Or perhaps she simply thought that no matter how harsh and risky and scary this could sometimes turn out to be, the alternative would be infinitely worse; that “individualism, which by its very nature has no organization and no leader” would always be a better bet than even the most well-intentioned and perfectly functioning system of bureaucratic control.
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