Only in America do conservatives so readily embrace individual freedom as a primary goal. In Europe, conservatism retains much of its original collectivist core. In fact, the differences between the continents leads to linguistic confusion. Liberal in America tends to mean “to the political left,” while in Europe it means “advocate of free market capitalism and minimal government.” Once at a talk at the University of Minnesota German guest Professor Wolfgang Wimpermann was introduced as a ‘very liberal’ professor. He was appalled — he was a leftist, not a liberal!
In Europe, liberals are advocates for minimal government, maximal individual liberty, and a focus on freedom first. Conservatives have learned to embrace the market, emphasize shared values and duties to society, and try to balance individual and societal interests. Social Democrats want an activist state to try to reduce economic injustice and protect the rights of workers and those lower on the totem pole. To round out the spectrum, neo-fascist parties are fiercely nationalistic with hints of racism, while Communist parties believe government control of the economy is necessary to create justice. The latter two have diminished in strength, thanks largely to failures of their ideologies when put into practice.
If you look at human history, the idea of individualism and personal freedom as a primary value is out of place. Humans are social animals, and except perhaps back in the early hunter-gatherer days, seem to naturally form collectives. Be it family clans or clusters of families forming tribes, humans develop collective identities quite easily and readily. Perhaps we need them.
Moreover, this is not something people tended to fight against in the past, this was simply part of one’s identity. One didn’t complain about duties to the tribe or clan, it took everyone doing their responsibilities to make life work. As societies grew, these collective identities expressed themselves through the rise of tradition and custom, ways to celebrate the ties binding members of a society together. In fact, one could say that the objective definition of a society is “a group bound by and recognizing the value of shared customs, traditions and norms.”
Capitalism might be blamed for this push towards individualism. Isn’t the market about individual self-interest, and everyone out for themselves? Not really. Adam Smith made very clear in his 1776 “Wealth of Nations,” the original “bible” of capitalism, that without ethical core principles capitalism wouldn’t work. In fact, it appears in looking at the real world that capitalism not buttressed by a strong, stable and cohesive societal base fails. The only place markets work well is where there is rule of law and social stability. Where there is anarchy, markets are replaced by organized crime and corrupt thugs.
Capitalism was a product of the enlightenment, and the enlightenment focus on rational thought and reason took a hatchet to tradition, religion, and custom. Indeed, the entire realm of the symbolic was decreased in importance vis-a-vis the material world at hand. For awhile people even sought some magic ‘answer key,’ a ‘first principle’ from which all of philosophy would follow. Religion was dismissed as irrational mythology, tradition and custom as mere habits lingering from an unenlightened era, with reason promsing to guide us to a better future.
The bonds holding societies together were degraded and denigrated. Even family was under attack. Sure, you need a male and female to reproduce, and radicals who wanted to separate children from parents for “proper, rational” education had to grudgingly admit that there seemed to be some kind of emotional bond (left over animal instinct, no doubt) causing most parents to want to be with their kids. But in general, the only reason to associate with others was rational choice. You shouldn’t be obligated to take care of others due to genetics, biology, or geographic proximity. Only if you choose to, only if it is in your self-interest do you need to feel any kind of obligation.
Thus, reason and rational thought led us to sever traditional collective bonds. Not completely — families are resilient (though extended families have become rare), communities, churches, and clubs still form group identities. But these are by free choice. By breaking traditional bonds we made it necessary to create a new agent to take care of tasks that used to get done through tradition and custom. Government would now have to assure care of the elderly, help to the poor, and protection of the citizens (from both internal and external threats). Moreover, government had the task of setting the moral rules and principles through law. Government would even provide new holy symbols — flags, anthems, and pledges would replace (or augment) the less powerful symbols of the cross, hymns and prayers. Thus government replaces tradition, custom and our personal responsibilities to the collective. It does the work that needs to be done for a society to function, freeing us to pursue self-interest and define our identities in a more individualistic fashion.
In short, there is a contradiction at work here: our freedom and individualism is made possible by government taking on more of a role in social life, yet most people see government as the main boogey man threatening that freedom and individualism.
Add to that the fact that our collectives have now become so large that the kind of bonds that existed before are hard to replicate, and it’s inevitable that we end up relying on large, powerful governments. In history the larger the empire, the more authority the rulers had and tried to use. Even relatively small countries are the size of some ancient empires, with populations to match. Is it any wonder that governments grow and are needed to maintain order (and when they fail to fulfill those functions, anarchy, poverty, crime and violence seem to dominate).
Our yearning for freedom and individualism is a result of having created unnatural and authoritarian forms of governance rather than ones we choose to or find it natural to obey. People in the past would sooner fast for a month to follow a common ritual than fasten their seat belt in response to a government edict. In the Muslim world the fasting at Ramadan combines a sense of celebration and joy with personal sacrifice. But when Muslims try to follow it living in the West, without the social bonds and common practices found in predominately Muslim cultures, it can be alienating and difficult.
Thus the irony: in nature we form collectives and choose to maintain them, building traditions and customs that give meaning to daily existence. When we build larger, denser societies with less social cohesion and whose rationale is based on self-interest and reason rather than tradition and custom, we form collectives that are bureaucratically governed and maintained by force (or threat of force). That yields a desire for freedom and individual liberty.
States that function best, are ones more closely in accord with the cultural values of a polity; in Scandinavia and many small European states the natural fit of state governance yields few cries of tyranny or anti-statist movements. Larger states like the US and larger European states strike the balance, gaining strong support for democratic ideals and even historical myths. Outside Europe, where the state is an imposed artifact often linking diverse ethnic groups, states have ceased to function, yielding wars and anarchy on the one hand, or tyranny and corruption on the other.
I wonder — is modern state government the best way to handle collective responsibilities absent the customs, traditions and bonds of the past? Was it wrong to impose sovereign states on former European colonies, could another form of governance have been developed? And now, in an era of globalization where states and sovereignty are being transformed, can we develop a new way of handling this dilemma that gives us a sense of solidarity with fellow citizens while not denying our desire to be free?