“How should men best live together?” — Aristotle, The Politics
This is the basic question that Aristotle took to be the beginning of politics, the first and basic question which gives rise to the field. Until recently, I thought so as well — until I realized the error involved. There is another question that comes before this one, but which almost no one even knows is there to be asked.
Today, political questions are approached in pragmatic terms: How should men best be organized? What’s the most efficient way to organize our groups, our societies? If you examine nearly all political discussions, both ancient and modern, they pertain to that question right there. Going forward, I’ll describe such questions as pertaining to “the problem of organization”.
Are all political questions problems of organization? If you can find anyone in the mainstream nowadays who is even aware that there could be such a question, their answer would be “yes”. To them, there is no deeper fundamental political issue. For such people, the idea that there might exist a prior moral fact or principle that constrains the manner or options of organization simply does not compute.
From Leftist government power freaks, Catholic “distributists” and other religious theocrats to libertarian “nudgers”, mainstream political discussion nowadays consist entirely of debates over whose ideas would “work” best when imposed as organizing principles. To them, politics pertains to solving the problem of organization — with only incomplete concern over dissent or such a thing as the “rights” of any involved individuals.
Objectivists (and the deepest core of the collectivist Left, and certain of the religionists) DO see and acknowledge that deeper question: before one can ask “how” should men organize, one must first consider *why* they should organize, and on what moral terms. This is the question I call “the moral problem of society”.
When men first consider the possibility of cooperation, of associating with one another, they find that this new state of being — “society”, the state of association — offers a tremendous potential benefit, and a great potential danger. The benefit, of course, is the economic potential, of specialization and division of labor and teamwork that multiplies potential productivity and offers additional protection against external dangers. The risk? A danger that was not present before: the potential for the use of force by other men. Crime, theft, murder, and slavery. The man in front of you may wish to be your friend, colleague, trading partner — or a thief, enemy, or oppressor.
Clearly, to realize the benefits of society, that risk must be mitigated, if not outright eliminated. A society with no moral constraint against the use of force is not a society at all — it is a war of all against all. Men are better off isolated and alone than living in such an environment.
Before there can be “problems of organization”, society must first be made civil; there must first be established the moral terms upon which men organize, terms which work to constrain men in society such that men can realize the tremendous benefit and value in working together.
The forbearance of the use of force, to leave men free to think, act and organize as they choose, is the first principle of civilization in the Objectivist view. This is our answer to the moral problem of society: that force cannot be tolerated and must be abolished, that individuals are morally sovereign and must be left free from the threat of force. Hence “individualism”, the moral base for organizational capitalism.
This is the context in which I understand Ayn Rand’s statement that “Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.”
The only alternative is the idea that force *is* permissible, that society is somehow *above* moral law (and therefore, significantly, its own moral agent), even if individuals are not. Hence “collectivism”, the moral base for every other politics in history. I’ve often discussed the end of the Left’s road; this right here is where it begins.
This is how the moral problem of society defines the true measuring stick of politics: individualism versus collectivism. This alternative is exhaustive; a society is of one type or the other, and this remains true no matter the particulars of how such societies are subsequently organized.
This is why it is important for us as Objectivists to remember that when we discuss individualism versus collectivism, or “the individual versus the State”, we are dealing with the moral problem of society. When we discuss inefficient government, the pitfalls of government intervention, perverse versus good incentives etc. *then* we are dealing with problems of organization. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but if we don’t retain your grounding in our stand on the moral problem of society and our awareness of it as a separate and prior alternative, it’s easy to get thrashed around in a maze of concrete arguments — because mainstream political discussions all deal with questions of organization.
How many times have you had people wave aside your principled arguments and demand that you provide “practical solutions” (“how would you voluntarily fund government? Who builds the roads? What about the poor? How do you deal with the “free rider” problem etc.)
How many times have you heard alleged “pro-capitalists” arguing for liberty in terms of its “benefits to society”?
How many times have you argued against the idea that “The government should mandate X” by saying it’s not the government’s business to mandate anything, only to be asked “Why not, don’t you think X is a good idea?”
How many times have you encountered someone who hears “individualism versus collectivism” in terms of “being all alone” versus “working together” (thereby conflating collectivism, a type of society, with society as such), even despite the plain evidence that people plainly “work together” under capitalism?
How many times have you heard Leftists conflate “society” with government, and/or peddle the myth that “government is ‘us’”?
Yes, collectivism is part of the intellectual bedrock in our culture, always part of someone’s given assumptions about which they care not to make the effort to question, and that is what’s going on in these examples.
But there is an additional insight to be had in realizing exactly how it is that collectivism remains frozen in place as a background assumption everywhere we look: in the mainstream mind, the problem of organization IS the whole of politics. This is the gigantic frozen abstraction fallacy sitting at the root of mainstream politics. They are treating as “society” what is in fact only one of two types of society, and their entire approach to politics is trapped in that frame. This is why they see individual liberty and force as merely two pragmatic options to be “balanced” against one another as society (the ultimate moral agent — not any individual) sees fit.
Consider the downstream effects of this error. People who substitute collectivism for society, will therefore conflate society with *force*. “You gotta have some force in society, man, can’t let anybody just do what they want.” To such minds, the question of the moral terms upon which society is based or by which it is constrained make no sense, because force is a given, implicit in the concept “society”. That’s why their response to any competing politics is to demand and argue each other’s coercive “solutions” — and why a common attack on Objectivists is that we don’t provide any (yes, they don’t take us seriously because we are not telling them what to do — we are not seeking to coerce them as *we* see fit!)
In their minds, all politics are problems of organization — and individual liberty, instead of being the moral premise upon which society is constituted and constrained, is just one of many organizational options that are decided, limited and “balanced” against one another as society chooses! Liberty is a matter of permissions, not rights, in this view; for such people, the debate is not over whether or not the people should be chained, but over the “optimum” number of links they should have.
When Ayn Rand says that capitalism cannot survive on any other philosophical base, this is the point of failure right here. You certainly can build a society that is “organized” around individual liberty and individual initiative, that has the superficial characteristics of a capitalist society (such as private property, businesses, stock markets and banks). But so long as force is understood as permissible somewhere in the system and that “society” decides organizational matters, sooner or later those who covet wealth (or worse, power) without knowing or caring for its source will make use of the peculiar tools such a society necessarily has lying around. If it pays off today, they’ll go for more tomorrow. Men find themselves increasingly under attack and end up banding together into tribes for protection, or to attack other tribes as the society degrades into the war of all against all.
This is the *organizational* source of such societies’ instability — and I daresay, is the reason why human civilizations have always collapsed throughout history.
Individualism, strictly speaking, is not a “system” at all from the standpoint of the organization problem. It is merely the moral context within which systems are built by free men. It does not tell you whether a hippie co-op “works” better than a corporation, that you should have stock markets, or how a government might best be voluntarily funded.
None of this is to say that we should have nothing to say to such problems of organization. We do. We simply have to be careful to first put down the fact that we are not primarily arguing for any particular organization of society; we are arguing for a specific moral context within which men in the state of association with other men operate. How men organize within that context is up to them.
As for those who, after all of this, demand: “But what if force is our only option?”, I have only one answer: that’s why I need an AR-15.