Ideas & Stories Part 3 – More than Individualism

In previous posts in this series I have commented on the remarkable fact that both “conservatives” and “progressives” prefer their own idealisms to dealing with actual problems. I discussed some of the moral principles I’ve inherited, and how this tended to focus my political attention initially. Now I have reached the real point of this exercise, which is to explain how I came to find those morals and habits not incorrect but to some extent insufficient.

In my junior or senior yeat of college – I no longer remember which – I discovered that my college library had a set of the complete works of G. K. Chesterton: twenty-six volumes in all, if I recall correctly. I decided that I would attempt to read the entire collection, an endeavor in which I came up short, merely getting through six or seven volumes before I was distracted by other things such as friends, activities, my actual coursework, and so on.

Chesterton was for the majority of his literary career some kind of distributist – a vision more humane than communism, but sharing with it a somewhat too-hopeful view of the chances of getting rid of the state apparatus which would have to be constructed first to redistribute current wealth. Thus far my commentary in passing. However, in his goals for society I had been used to finding Chesterton mainly sensible, and Marxism by reputation mainly not. It was thus a surprise to find, in an essay in one of these volumes, Chesterton using language that recalled nothing so much as Marx’s dictum, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

Now it is evident on only brief reflection that this statement, whatever its origins or associations, is in fact a succinct summary of the necessary goals of any society which has justice in mind. I remember thinking at the time with some amusement that dorm life had a certain communistic element to it, with the uniformity of accomodations, the relative ease of using or borrowing between rooms and residents, and the student resident advisors. Or perhaps more socialist, because the dorms did have college supervision, and existed only in relation to the college – and like most socialism, the college is not a self-sustaining community but is found to depend on a greater context and is an exercise, to some extent, in piling up debt.

Still, I want to emphasize by finding this passage where Chesterton – an authority acknowledged by my upbringing – seemed to echo Marx, this opened up a new way of considering society and especially government. It is evident the serious socialist errs in trying to micromanage the correct “abilities” and “needs” of all individuals; but it is – when the reflection is allowed – doubtful whether government’s origins can be found only in a need “to secure these rights”.

Two brief comments here: First, I once read a book arguing, as I understood it, that through the early years of the United States the Constitution was held more important, as a statement of principles, than the Declaration of Independence, which was looked at mainly as a piece of legalese. I am not qualified to comment on this thesis and don’t in any case recall the book. Second, in yet another forgotten book, I found the comment that the Greek citizen considered his “freedom” to be not mainly individual liberty, but to be maintained to the extent that his community – the city-state – maintained her independent status.

If society’s only legitimate organizing force, however, is the government, and social concerns are more than just maintenance of negative rights, this falls back more or less into socialism. But the ideals I had absorbed were more or less individualistic – and in a society of individuals, society or individual must take precedence at any given point.

The answer I might have realized I already had found, if I had remembered, in Chesterton. No person exists as an isolated individual – no person ever had, save Adam and him only briefly – but instead in family. A person has a mother, father – likely siblings; eventually most marry (or not) and the family continues to the new generation. In the scheme of things, individuals and nations both pass away, but through families most of all the business of humanity continues. Now, I was forced into this realization through an argument with a friend who would instead maintain the interests of the individual as naturally primary: but I might have seen it before.

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