Libertarianism, Individualism, and Egoism: Karl Popper v. Plato

Libertarians are constantly attacked as proponents of an “every-man-for-himself” philosophy. This is mainly because we hold that each man is morally autonomous–that is, a person is morally accountable for his or her actions alone, and not for those actions taken by others. This individualism is assailed as selfish, or as an attack on altruism. Many libertarians actually agree with this position, but it is not a position implied by libertarian or individualist principles. As the philosopher Karl Popper writes, “Individualism is opposed to collectivism. Egoism [or selfishness] is opposed to altruisim.” Popper continues:

This individualism, united with altruism, has become the basis of our western civilization. It is the central doctrine of Christianity (‘love thy neighbor’, not ‘love thy tribe’); and it is the core of all ethical doctrines which have grown from our civilization and stimulated it. It is also, for instance, Kant’s central practical doctrine (‘always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means to your ends’). There is no other thought which has been so powerful in the moral development of man. Plato was right when he saw in this doctrine the enemy of his caste system.

Popper points out that the common assault on individualism, or libertarianism, is actually just misplaced attacks on egoism, or selfishness.

It is interesting that for Plato, and for most Platonists, an altruistic individualism cannot exist. According to Plato, the only alternative to collectivism is egoism; he simply identifies all altruism with collectivism, and all individualism with egoism. This is not a matter of terminology, of mere words, for instead of four possibilities, Plato recognized only two. This has created considerable confusion in speculation on ehtical matters, even down to our own day.

Plato’s identification of individualism with egoism furnishes him with a powerful weapon for his defence of collectivism as well as for his attack upon individualism. In defending collectivism, he can appeal to our humanitarian feeling of unselfishness; in his attack, he can brand all individualists as selfish, as incapable of devotion to anything but themselves. This attack, although aimed by Plato against individualism in our sense, i.e. against the rights of human individuals, reaches of course only a very different target, egoism. But this difference is constantly ignored by Plato and by most Platonists….

Individualism was part of the old intuitive idea of justice. That justice is not, as Plato would have it, the health and harmony of the state, but rather a certain way of treating individuals, is emphasized by Aristotle, when he says, ‘justice is something that pertains to persons.’

Another attack on individualism–that it advocates isolationism–is addressed by the great Austrian economist F.A. Hayek:

[Individualism] is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society.

But its basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them.

Therefore, through Hayek and Popper, we can see that most critiques of libertarian individualism are wrong mostly because they criticize positions that are not even implied by the position at all.