Friday, March 2, 2007

Fighting City Hall

Despite what your generic Libertarian/Randite/Nietzchean/Rugged Individualist might try to argue, human beings are pretty much natural collectivists. Real hermits are rare, and usually crazy, to boot. We begin life with, at the very least, familial links, and if those are sour, it’s hard to have anything other than a subsequently sour life. We clump together in tribes, extended families, communities, SIGs, clubs, parties, religions, nations, and ideologies, each with membership requirements, secret handshakes, passwords, responsibilities and privileges.

Now the philosophy of individualism wasn’t a 19th Century invention, though it’s always worth repeating that all ancient traditions date from the latter half of the 19th Century. But the Stoics and the Epicureans have some claim to individualism, and although the “superior man” mentioned in the I Ching is also “The Boss,” there is certainly some notion of individual focus to be found within those poorly translated texts. (Given the age of the thing, I daresay that even the Chinese is a poor translation, just as 18th Century English novels read differently now, despite having exactly the same words as originally written).

Each of us is heir to an immense wealth of pre-existing human knowledge, not just the writings of the past, but the wisdom represented by tradition, the common sense encapsulated in “standard practice” and the wealth of all the pre-existing capital, the roads, the buildings, the cleared forests, grandma’s wedding ring and the old homestead. Without all of that, each of us is an ignorant primate shivering in the dark.

Moreover, even taking all of that as given, even granting the idea that past is prolog, and now is the time me, myself, and I will choose to strike out on my own self as a pure individualist, the fact of the matter is that those groups of organized people I see around me are just so damn big and powerful that I might as well be the Monty Python flea assaulting a bull elk.

Given that reality, it’s easy to see the appeal of the authoritarian. Maybe one can rise to the top of the authority pyramid, to command from the heights of power and write one’s own name on the pages of history. And if not (and for the vast majority of people, not will be the operative word), it can be enough to identify with the tribe, the herd, the nation, especially if that group is personified as an individual, the Ruler, the Big Man, Der Fuehrer, the Man, the Boss, the Big Cheese, the Head Guy, the Top Dog, the Man at the Top.

Heinlein himself isn’t a good example, because, bless him, he was as idiosyncratic as they come. But I’d always wondered how it was that he became a patron saint of libertarians, opining as he did so frequently, about the desirability of military service. Ah yes, it’s The Army of One. It’s a puzzle as great as how Ayn Rand, Ms Atheism personified, seems to be beloved by so many who wound up as Christian Conservatives.

But add in enough Freudian mechanisms, Identification, Projection, and the ever popular Rationalization and Denial, and you can get from point A is A to point Pi (transcendental and irrational) without even pausing to take a deep breath.

There’s a truly fascinating (and entertaining) bit of rumination posted on Economist Brad Delong’s site about the invention of the “corporate person:”

I’ve always held that the “limited liability” privilege granted to corporations was a sort of encapsulation of aristocratic, and hence, state power, so social, i.e. governmental regulation of corporations is not only desirable, but inevitable. The only real question there is who reaps the benefits. I’ll still hold to that, but Delong points out that the granting of “rights” to the corporate person was an example of “judicial activism” in the late 19th Century, by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was, in fact, a deliberate (and totally inconsistent) conflating of the original constitutional use of “person” (referring to slaves), and “corporate person.”

Thus, corporations came to have “rights,” including free speech and the right to due process.

The idea of “corporate rights” like “states rights” is to my way of thinking pernicious. Rights are constructs created to protect fragile individuals from powerful groups. The idea of collective “rights” looks an awful lot like a way of undercutting the very idea of individual rights, confusing the issue in order for groups to gang up on individuals.

But hey, I’m just one guy. Why should my opinion matter? You can’t fight city hall. Or, for that matter, General Electric.

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