Can the Needs of Society Trump the Rights of Individuals?

Frédéric Bastiat
Frédéric Bastiat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A common premise of communitarianism is that liberty is one of many competing political values worth pursuing. According to this thinking, there are circumstances where it might be preferable to sacrifice liberty, at least to some degree, in favor of other values. That is the often unstated premise in the communitarian critique that libertarians care about liberty “to the exclusion of all other values.” As a libertarian, my take is that complete liberty is worth achieving, not only because liberty is itself valuable, but precisely because liberty is the most suitable means of pursuing other worthwhile political ends.

As a preliminary point, I think some communitarians are engaging in a false dichotomy to think that liberty and other values must be mutually exclusive.

The more general communitarian premise about the benefit of offsetting liberty for other values is restated in the notion that the needs of society may sometimes take priority over the rights of individuals. The fundamental problem with this notion is that a society does not think or act apart from the thinking and acting of individuals. Likewise, society has no needs apart from the needs of individuals, one of which would include being free from interpersonal coercion to think and to act on one’s best judgement (while honoring the mutual freedom of others to do the same).

I think Frederic Bastiat, writing in 1850, said it best:

To destroy freedom of action is to destroy the possibility, and consequently the power, of choosing, of judging, of comparing; it amounts to destroying reason, to destroying thought, to destroying man himself. Whatever their starting point, this is the ultimate conclusion our modern reformers always reach; for the sake of improving society they begin by destroying the individual, on the pretext that all evils come from him, as if all good things did not likewise come from him.

If the needs of society and the individual go hand-in-hand, it would be logically inconsistent to argue that the needs of society would include undermining the needs of individuals.

In a free society, there is no irreconcilable conflict with the needs of society and those of individuals. People are able to contribute to way that they believe best advance the needs of their community and others do what they think is best. A free society thus achieves both consensus (as everyone agrees to his or her plan) and diversity (as most everyone’s plan is different). To paraphrase Ludwig von Mises, people’s fundamental interest is in preserving social cooperation, as opposed to the passing and relatively insignificant benefits of hegemonic intervention.

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