Individual Liberty vs. The Social Animal

September 13, 2008

David Brooks’ Op-Ed in the NY Times yesterday takes a swipe at the notion of individual liberty:

Near the start of his book, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” Barry Goldwater wrote: “Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being.” The political implications of this are clear, Goldwater continued: “Conservatism’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?”

Goldwater’s vision was highly individualistic and celebrated a certain sort of person — the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe.

The problem is, this individualist description of human nature seems to be wrong. Over the past 30 years, there has been a tide of research in many fields, all underlining one old truth — that we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion.

Ummmm…. I’m a little confused. I don’t see how the notion that individuals should be free to make their own choices rather than have others force choices onto them is lessened by the knowledge that humans are extremely social animals. 

I don’t think I have to re-read (or re-watch) “A Clockwork Orange”. The question is not the degree to which Alex and his droogs are social, the question is whether we have a right to hold their eyes open with intrusive machinery against their will.