Friday, 3 September 2010

From Each According to Their Heart-Strings


By upbringing and by conviction, I am an individualist and proud of it. But the word 'individualist' has acquired a nasty taint of selfishness and conceit, by association with that sort of self-styled 'rugged individualist' who, not content with letting everybody go to the devil in their own way, stands ever ready to assist them along that road of all roads, and will gladly brag of this manly virtue from arsehole to breakfast time.

This brag needs calling. A true rugged individualist, who goes through life caring only for one individual, is almost as far from sincere individualism as it is mathematically possible to be. There are at least seven billion individuals whose interests he is blatantly discounting, and seven billion to one against is lousy odds in my book. He might as well call himself a socialist for single-mindedly promoting his golf club, a conservative for zealously protecting his rare edition of the Marquis de Sade, or a Green for being nice to his bull terrier. An atom or two of the right stuff is present in each instance, but it won't stretch far enough to deserve the breath it takes to claim it.

It's all about me is not the mantra of the individualist. We already have a word for that belief: it is called solipsism. If somebody believes that the rest of the world really exists independently of them, and behaves as far as possible as if it doesn't matter anyway, then so much the worse for them. From where I'm standing - as a dues-paying member of the Rest of the World - if it walks like a solipsist and quacks like a solipsist, then for all practical purposes it might just as well be a solipsist. Conservatives and classical liberals who consider this a bit harsh are invited to consider it in the light of the ever-useful Doctrine of Revealed Preferences.

The consistent individualist cries, not It's all about me, but It's all up to me! Which is a motto much less comfortable, if more exhilarating, and far too frequently something worth crying about.

"From each according to his ability, to each according to their needs," is a vile philosophy of government, because both ability and needs are determined by a third party, who has the ability to make everybody else satisfy their peculiar and oft-perverted needs. I am far from convinced that it is an ignoble philosophy of self-government. When that judgement is made by each according to their own ability, it strikes me as a merely natural and honourable consequence of taking one's own and other people's individuality seriously. Only it is not the sort of judgement that can, or may, ever be made for another.

My favourite wording of this rule is, unsurprisingly, not a traditional Marxist one. It is, more surprisingly, due to that arch-collectivist, somewhat misanthropic, ultra-Green radical feminist and unsurpassed proponent of the High Fantastic Slapstick, Sheri S Tepper - one of those brilliantly wrongheaded curmudgeons and unrepentant Individuals whom her mirror-enemy G K Chesterton would have instantly recognized and, on his better days, celebrated with a skill unmatched. Saith Tepper, and sez I:

"To the weak, succour. To the strong, burdens."

And the strong we shall know, and become, by their burdens freely chosen and borne. The cosmos has no work fairer nor more rugged to offer.

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