Autonomy and Individualism

In recent weeks, there have been several prominent intellectual attacks on “autonomy” in conservative circles, identifying it as the underlying evil in our society. This is poppycock, served up by “thinkers” who habitually worry about the individual being too free. They may mean well in trying to find causes for the serious disintegration of family and community in recent times, but they miss the forest for the trees. Simply put, the stress on society today from technology and government is the real culprit.

With abortion rights advocates demanding both bodily autonomy and the government’s right to force COVID restrictions, the absurdity is laid bare. Practical considerations such as the fallibility of human beings and the dangers of political power are often ignored. Catholic thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, and some “natural law” proponents such as Pierre Manent and Adrian Vermeule, all question the logic of autonomy in various ways. Defining “natural law” becomes the rub. 

Many of the recent suppositions about the dangers of individual autonomy go back to an insightful, inciteful, and much-cited 1968 essay in Science magazine. In “The Tragedy of the Commons,” ecologist Garrett Hardin posited that the “commons” was always and everywhere endangered by the self-interest of individuals. Hardin, in turn, used as his foundation a paper from 1833 by economist William Forster Lloyd, in which the hypothetical case of overgrazing might occur on common land if, “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit, in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.” 

The fact that village common land has survived without such overgrazing, in some instances, since before recorded history, was irrelevant to the hypothetical postulation, which was actually an attack on population growth by a Malthusian scarcity enthusiast misusing Jeremy Bentham’s axiom of utilitarianism. He was not, himself, a very good economist but, as usual, just another professor who could speak without enduring the consequences of his words. 

Not to get stuck in the tall grass, commons being what they generally are, this misappropriation was then latched onto a century later by the socialist, John Maynard Keynes as an excellent point with which to gain sympathy for government control of any economic interaction in society. Keynes, not being very original, had wanted to associate his own ideas with the great Bentham as well—whereas the utilitarian Bentham had made no such justification for any sort of forced control of populations. 

Academic citations being what they are, the actual origins of William Foster Lloyd’s conjecture is now clouded in the manufactured myth of attributions, while the graphic image of a “Tragedy of the Commons,” with its barren soil and all, (a cigarette butt and crushed beer can add a nice touch) lives on. The common sense use of land by those who depend on it for their livelihood is always ignored—common sense being frowned upon by those who know better from behind ivy-covered stone walls. (Well, admittedly, the walls are more often Bauhausian metal, glass, and fiber these days). 

Further complicating this picture is this existential fact: Most abused land results from government interference or control. The government assumes the right to tell farmers what they can grow, or incentivizes the growing of specific crops while licensing and subsidizing railroads to enter the market, so that a broad and unobstructed prairie (better managed by Native Americans anyway) becomes a dustbowl, while truck farms in Indiana struggle beneath the weight of taxes to support the railroad subsidies. The list of these absurdities is endless—building highways to coastal Maine and giving tax breaks for the building of second homes to urban dwellers, which raises the price of coastal land to where fishermen cannot afford the taxes on a first home, much less live with the restrictions on their catch. The examples go on and on. 

Most “tragedy of the commons” essayists are simply looking for an excuse to tell people what to do and when to do it. They have no faith in, or understanding of, the ability of human beings to control themselves and their own lives. The unwashed must be proscribed and prescribed to—for their own good. That’s what government is for, doncha know. But the essayists usually have no such reservations about the government screwing it up, because they always assume they will be the ones who are in charge. 

Alex Kaschuta, in her essay “The Tragedy of Our Commons” at the American Mind, makes some of the usual assumptions and some that are relatively original, such as “We need to understand that the Left is the worship of pure autonomy. Every allegiance you have to kin and kind, every institution, every tradition, every category you use to make sense of the world is an insult to pure autonomy.” Really? 

The key words there are “pure autonomy.” “Purity” makes an appearance in many arguments, Left and Right. However, “autonomy” is a chosen word—chosen instead of individuality, I think, because the better word has been well argued and already too easily defended in any social context. To be brief, we are born into families, as part of a society, and though we may leave that setting for another, there is seldom a general or long-term advantage to living autonomously. The greater autonomy of some individuals (such as those who choose to go “off the grid”) is a choice that should be allowed for in an open society. We are human beings. We have our needs. Society benefits because we can express ourselves as individuals, not as a herd. 

But autonomy, per se, is really a hypothetical situation to begin with (unless you are a fan of “Naked and Afraid”), just as is the idea of villagers overgrazing their commons without an outside cause (British laws in support of sheep and the Highland clearances, for example). Whereas, individual eccentricity, so long as it does not bear unfairly on the rights of others, should be cherished. This was once a characteristic of English society which I admired. And if the grid were ever to collapse, the coals from those hermit fires will be wanted. 

In effect, Kaschuta appears to accept some kind of artificial construct about what might be good for humanity, ignoring what has, in fact, been good for eons. 

Consider the act of finding a husband. He doesn’t drop out of the sky; he isn’t delivered by Amazon. Courtship is a hothouse flower: it needs very specific conditions. There need to be enough people for a selection pool, who can like each other enough to decide that spending a lifetime together would be acceptable. They have to speak at least one common language and share at least a core set of values. They need to believe in the institution of marriage. They maybe don’t buy that having children will cause polar bears to spontaneously combust, and they need to find each other easily enough. This environment, the ecosystem of marriage and children, and all the technology and incentives around it is a commons.

This is a demanding list of incentives, all of it replacing “boy meets girl.” Not mentioned is either love or common sense. “Courtship is a hothouse flower.” I suppose. Heat can be a factor. But most marriages throughout history were arrangements, for the good of family or community. Money had much to do with it, or its surrogate barter in the form of land or food. Babies were assumed, but their arrival was not controllable. 

Now that we have the pill, all other bets are off. Now, the individual can pick and choose. That is in itself a significant form of autonomy. How do we rationally deal with that? Not by attacking the inherent “autonomy.” Individuals will find a way. Some will fail, but others will succeed, and society will adjust—that is, if left to its own devices. And Cole Porter will still have a job to do writing love songs. 

Kaschuta seems sympathetic to the organic nature of human society, but unwilling to allow for a natural reckoning between history and common sense. The argument must be made (with no certainty at all on my part) that the family remains the primary element of the equation. What is best for the family and allows for individual autonomy will likely work. I suspect that if the government continues with its attempts to destroy the family through miseducation and petty law, individuals will still find a way to form family units and carry on. And again, we are human beings. Without government restrictions or mandates, we will continue to grow the crops that make sense for our own welfare. And that will be fine.

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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