Individualism and Public Policy: Not all Communities are Horizontal

Many of the most important relationships we all partake in are between us and some sort of a greater community. Whether it be the market, the nation, the language group or a favorite online forum, it is communities that in large part define our lives and experience of the world.

Of course, everybody knows such relationships inherently have two opposing sides. 

One side expresses the ability of communities to foster creativity, encourage sharing, spread wisdom and overall increase well-being. The other expresses the ability of communities to oppress, stifle and hinder individuality as well as divide people in multiple warring sub-factions. 

This dualism inherent to any community has always been a source of great political and philosophical conflict. To take one particular example, individualism has frequently been attacked as selfish, uncaring or blind to the fact that human success depends invariably on the work of others and hence can never be attributed to the individual as such.

Thus, the caricature of the selfish individualist was born, i.e. the one that avoids communal life and thinks him/herself self-made whilst clearly dependent on the cooperation of others.

Politically, all of this ends up expressed as moral accusations of cold-heartedness and ingratitude to the rest of society. Why doesn’t the individualist want to join the rest of society? Why don’t they want to contribute? Why do they avoid being a part of the wider community?

The subtext is always one — there is something wrong with such an individualistic outlook on the world that must be fixed. We’re all interdependent and a view that emphasizes independence is at best unproductive and at worst immoral. In both cases, it’s certainly undesirable and must be fought against.

Personally, I have always been inclined towards individualism as my personal philosophy. This is why the above critique has always exerted a large influence on my internal dialogue. Why, indeed, if we are all interconnected, do I resist becoming ever more so? Why value personal responsibility so highly if nothing truly depends on the individual, but some delicate combination of genes, environment and everybody else around?

The more I have thought about this, the more I have become convinced that the answer will be found neither by doubling down on naive individualism (everyone succeeds/fails solely on personal merit, community has no place in life) nor by embracing an artificially created community imposed from the outside by force.

It’s worth focusing on the last point first. Those who emphasize the good which communities can do have consequently often advocated for public policy based on these observations. In so doing, they have always reasoned that the policy was justified in light of the expected greater social cohesion that would result.

However, by its very method of enforcement, such public policy will always tend to diminish the positive effects that communities are able provide to individuals. Put simply, imposing behavior, beliefs and norms from the outside will always emphasize the oppressive sides of communities. There will naturally be an increase in interdependence, but it will come at the cost of loss of freedom, meaning and a sense of agency and control. (e.g. mandatory union participation, for example; or socialized anything to one degree or another)

In fact, if individualism is about anything, it must be about precisely these high ideals of freedom, meaning and agency. And it is exactly these that public policy designed to create a community often inadvertently limits and kills.

Yet, there is another phenomenon going on here as well. Individualists not only sense that in some fundamental sense communities must be voluntary and interdependence mostly organic and without coercion. They also sense that there are different types of communities and the wider society is the door to but only one of them.

When speaking of different communities, I am not speaking about the difference between a facebook group full of memes and a local church gathering. (although this difference exists and is important too!)

Instead, I mean what best could be described as the difference between vertical and horizontal communities.

Now, horizontal communities are those that we normally describe as communities. They exist in the present moment and cover many people. (i.e. they are horizontal in the sense that they cover multiple people in the present) The power of such horizontal communities is in cooperation between the members of the group. The dangers are as initially stated — risk of oppression and isolation from outsiders.

Public policy oftentimes wants to create precisely this sort of horizontal community, i.e. one that covers all of society and gives rise to new interdependencies. (e.g. socialized medicine, socialized benefits, etc.. all want to create further interdependence between people for the benefit of everyone involved)

Yet, there is another type of community too. One that individualists are perhaps more likely to intuitively sense without necessarily being able to express it out loud. 

I name it vertical community and for me it signifies the more solitary state of being wherein one’s community are people from previous times and places. It’s the feeling of walking in the steps of centuries old tradition, of seeing the world like somebody else and of being able to communicate with them through whatever it is they left you. (books, poems, songs, …

Of course, one could object and say that this is not a community as it is not really social. But I know that at many times I have felt much more understood and less lonely with a great book than with people in a “real” community. (e.g. at university, school, church, etc.)

Naturally, there is less verbal communication in a vertical community. But there is also less potential for oppression. (there is simply no one to do the oppression!) For me, the distinctive quality of a vertical community is the sense of sharing a historical tradition and finding meaning in it. It’s what would give a sense of not being alone even to the last Christian, Buddhist or a Stoic in existence.

Actually, when I reflect, this might well be why I did not enjoy my Oxford experience as much. I expected much more of a vertical community. In other words, instead of student societies and clubs (that were all mired in the current trendy ways of thinking and often devolved into mindless partying), I expected much more in the way of getting to know those who came before. Oxford encouraged social gatherings and embraced horizontal communities, but, at least for me, the result was loneliness. My kind of people were simply not those in Oxford at same time as me; they were those who came before.

Great institutions and philosophies often get derided for being out-dated, but it’s often been my experience that it’s usually the modern world which has been unable to appreciate the hidden wisdom of the past. 

Thus, Oxford students run away from their traditions. We, modern people, run away from religion and many run away from the wisdom humanity has accumulated throughout the ages. And frankly, oftentimes, the new horizontal communities we create ultimately amount to, at best, rediscovering the wisdom already present in books from the past. (there is no good reason to think that an uninformed search for meaning and truth starting today would turn out better than what came before!)

Now, the problem with enforcing horizontal communities is that they inevitably take away from one’s freedom to partake in vertical ones. The harder it is to opt out from interacting with others at every single moment, the more entrenched one becomes in horizontal communities.

In other words, the more our lives are made to depend on others through coercion, rather than personal will, the less our freedom to live according to alternative unpopular philosophies from older times. (e.g. it’d be hard to be religious under a communist regime; it’d be hard to practice free trade under socialism; it used to be hard to be a Catholic under a Protestant rule, etc.)

In some sense, individualism doesn’t deny the role of communities, but rather expands it. Individualists are fine with being the only one at this moment, the sole culmination of a years-old philosophical view. And except for the most naive caricatured versions of individualism, individualists do not eschew interdependence. 

Rather, many individualists find interdependence with others in time, instead of space. In other words, they find interdependence through building on the work of those who lived before. This is why, individualists rightly feel “independent” since the ones they depend on are dead and no longer exist. 

There are many reasons why someone would embrace vertical communities more and embrace individualism. For me, the reason is a combination of an introverted personality and a belief that previous eras were often much wiser in approaching the different aspects of our human life.

In any case, I hope it is obvious by now that it is not straightforward to advocate for public policy just by virtue of the benefits of interdependence. In the end, interdependence takes many forms and its success is often rooted in voluntary and meaningful association, not in forced and fake cooperation.

Moreover, vertical communities are no less meaningful than horizontal ones. One can feel at home with a book and lonely in the big city full of strangers. At the same time, one could feel bored by the book and yearn for the company of people who live today. There is room for both types of communities. Yet, the more we emphasize horizontal ones, i.e. the more we unite people today around a given policy, the less freedom each individual gets to be a part of their particular vertical community.

In short, horizontal communities are influenced by the prevailing Zeitgeist much more than vertical ones; individualists prefer non-conformism and would rather associate freely with a given historical tradition than be made to associate with others through coercion. Interdependence works, but its full effects (including the spiritual ones, like a sense of meaning and purpose) are only manifest without any coercion. Moreover, interdependence for individualists does not necessarily imply a connection with others, today; instead, it sometimes implies continuing an older tradition of thought with various historical contributors.

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