But what about society? Doesn’t society have rights? Isn’t society responsible for lots of problems? Society is vitally important to individuals. It is to achieve the benefits of interaction with others, as Locke and Hume explained, that individuals enter into society and establish a system of rights. But at the conceptual level, we must understand that society is composed of individuals. It has no independent existence. If 10 people form a society, there are still 10 people, not 11. It’s also hard to define the boundaries of a society; where does one society end and another begin? By contrast, it’s easy to see where one individual ends and another begins — an important advantage for social analysis and for allocating rights and duties.
We cannot escape responsibility for our actions by blaming society. Others cannot impose obligations on us by appealing to the alleged rights of society, or of the community. In a free society we have our natural rights and our general obligation to respect the rights of other individuals. Our other obligations are those we choose to assume by contract.
THE NEED FOR COOPERATION
Yet none of this is to defend the sort of “atomistic individualism” that philosophers and professors like to deride. We do live together and work in groups. How one could be an atomistic individual in our complex modern society is not clear: Would that mean eating only what you grow, wearing what you make, living in a house you build for yourself, restricting yourself to natural medicines you extract from plants? Some critics of capitalism or advocates of “back to nature” might endorse such a plan, but few libertarians would want to move to a desert island and renounce the benefits of what Adam Smith called the Great Society, the complex and productive society made possible by social interaction.
Libertarians agree with George Soros that “cooperation is as much a part of the system as competition.” In fact, we consider cooperation so essential to human flourishing that we don’t just want to talk about it; we want to create social institutions that make it possible. That is what property rights, limited government, and the rule of law are all about.
It might be nice if love could bring about all the complex tasks of cooperation and competition by which we achieve our purposes, without all the emphasis on selfinterest and individual rights, and many opponents of liberalism have offered an appealing vision of society based on universal benevolence. But as Adam Smith pointed out, “in civilized society [man] stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes,” yet in his whole life he could never befriend a small fraction of the number of people whose cooperation he needs. If we depended entirely on benevolence to produce cooperation, we simply couldn’t undertake complex tasks. Reliance on other people’s self‐interest, in a systemof well‐defined property rights and free exchange, is the only way to organize a society more complicated than a small village.
The human need for cooperation has helped to create vast and complex networks of trust, credit, and exchange. For such networks to function, we need several things: a willingness on the part of most people to cooperate with others and to keep their promises, the freedom to refuse to do business with those who refuse to live up to their commitments, a legal system that enforces the fulfillment of contracts, and a market economy that allows us to produce and exchange goods and services on the basis of secure property rights and individual consent.
If we were a species for whom cooperation was not more productive than isolated work, or if we were unable to discern the benefits of cooperation, then we would not only remain isolated and atomistic, but, as Ludwig von Mises explains, “Each man would have been forced to view all other men as his enemies; his craving for the satisfaction of his own appetites would have brought him into an implacable conflict with all his neighbors.” Without the possibility of mutual benefit from cooperation and the division of labor, neither feelings of sympathy and friendship nor the market order itself could arise. Those who say that humans “are made for cooperation, not competition” fail to recognize that the market is cooperation. (Indeed, it is people competing to cooperate better!)
President Obama defends his vision of expansive government by saying, “Imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires” and “No single person can … build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs.” Well, of course not. No one thinks a single person could. It takes many people, working together. But in most cases it takes businesses, coordinated by prices and markets, to meet our needs and generate progress. We are fed, clothed, sheltered, informed, and entertained by individuals, working together with other individuals, mostly in corporations, with their activities coordinated by the market process. Obama offers a stark vision of a world in which lone individuals have no way to cooperate with others except through the state. Life would indeed be nasty, brutish, and short if it were solitary.
SLAVERY AND RACISM
Of course, as late as Jefferson’s time and beyond, the concept of the individual with full rights did not include all people. Astute observers noted that problem at the time and began to apply the ringing phrases of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and the Declaration of Independence more fully. The equality and individualism that underlay the emergence of capitalism and republican government naturally led people to start thinking about the rights of women and of slaves, especially African American slaves in the United States. It’s no accident that feminism and abolitionism emerged out of the ferment of the Industrial Revolution and the American and French revolutions.
The abolitionist movement grew logically out of the Lockean libertarianism of the American Revolution. How could Americans proclaim that “all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” without noticing that they themselves were holding other men and women in bondage? They could not, of course, and had they tried: they would have been reminded by people such as the great English scholar Samuel Johnson, who wrote in 1775, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” The world’s first anti‐slavery society was founded in Philadelphia that same year. Thomas Jefferson himself owned slaves, yet he included a passionate condemnation of slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence: “[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him.” The Continental Congress deleted that passage, but Americans lived uneasily with the obvious contradiction between their commitment to individual rights and the institution of slavery.
The abolitionist movement was naturally led by libertarians. Leading abolitionists called slavery “man stealing,” in that it sought to deny self‐ownership and steal a man’s very self. Their arguments paralleled those of the Levellers and John Locke. William Lloyd Garrison wrote that his goal was not just the abolition of slavery but “the emancipation of our whole race from the dominion of man, from the thraldom of self, from the government of brute force.” Frederick Douglass likewise made his arguments for abolition in the terms of classical liberalism: self‐ownership and natural rights.
Racism is an age‐old problem, but it clearly clashes with the universal ethics of libertarianism and the equal natural rights of all men and women. As Ayn Rand pointed out in her 1963 essay “Racism”: