Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 10, 2010

Libertarianism, Individualism, and Alexander Pope

By N.S. Palmer

A co-worker, who just turned 28 and is younger than I am, mentioned that he has high blood pressure.

That reminded me of how fortunate I am to be healthy. It also reminded me of my favorite quote from Alexander Pope‘s Essay on Man, published in 1734:

Hope springs eternal in the human brest,
Man never is, but always to be, blest.

Pope’s point is that we are never satisfied with what we have. No matter how well-off we are, we always want something better.

His ideas are still relevant today, which reminded me that knowledge and learning are very much a social project. We engage in an extended conversation not merely with other people in our own time, but with people in the past and future.

Each of us has a unique and important contribution to make. But together, we create a result that is more than just the sum of our individual contributions. As Robert Oerter remarks in The Theory of Almost Everything, his excellent book about the development of particle physics:

The Standard Model [of elementary particles] was cobbled together by many brilliant minds over the course of nearly the whole of the twentieth century, sometimes driven forward by new experimental discoveries, sometimes by theoretical advances. It was a collaborative effort in the largest sense, spanning continents and decades.

The idea that human beings are self-contained units (“individualism“) might have some applications, but it’s incorrect as a general picture of who and what we are.

We do not become who and what we are in a vacuum, but by interacting with and learning from other people. Without that, most of us would still be grunting in caves and hunting for berries to eat. What affects one of us, affects all of us. As Jesus said,

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:40)

Its individualist bias is the essential flaw in libertarianism, as well as in the closely-related (and more explicitly Nietzschean) preachments of Ayn Rand. Both see human nature as something you can identify by studying an individual person in isolation from others. As far as they’re concerned, you can take an individual human being, put him or her in a box, do some tests, and that gives you a good definition of human nature.

In fact, their view of human nature is even less accurate than that. They believe you can throw away every part of a person except for the reasoning part of the brain. You can then base your concept of human nature solely on rational calculation and economic self-interest.

Libertarianism is thus an ideal political philosophy for a population of disembodied brains. For real human beings, it is somewhat less appropriate.

Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Somewhat?

  2. Hi, Jim —

    Good catch! I think that we were both writing with tongue in cheek, there. 🙂

    In my opinion, libertarianism does have important insights. Each person’s freedom, consistent with the freedom of others, is an important social and political value.

    I differ from libertarians in that I think freedom is one important value, but not the *only* important value.

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