Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on October 30, 2020

in Complexity & Emergence, Current Affairs, The Future

… is from page 228 of George Will’s superb 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility:

Capitalism requires, and therefore capitalism develops, a society in which economic dealings are lubricated by the disposition and ability to trust strangers.

DBx: No truth is more central to modern civilization. When I ponder it, I always recall an example that I first heard used about 25 years ago by Tom Palmer, and have since encountered elsewhere: You willingly fly in an airplane built, maintained, owned, and piloted by complete strangers, and upon arrival at your destination a rental-car company records some information that you carry on a piece of plastic and then that company gives to you the keys to an expensive vehicle that it owns.

While of course there are formal legal sanctions that kick in if something goes awry, practically speaking the only reason such transactions occur as frequently as they do is that all of the people involved, each of whom is a stranger to nearly everyone else, trusts that the strangers on the other side of the contractual bargains will abide by each of the contract’s formal terms and its spirit.

It’s beautiful.

And while there were some reasons to worry that such trust was declining a bit just before 2020, the pre-Covid-19 continuing increase in commercial activity, on a global scale despite Trump and heightened nationalism, suggests that that decline – on the whole and globally – was minimal.

Yet what will our world be like now that the mainstream reaction to Covid has conditioned people to view strangers as fleshy geysers of lethal pathogens? “Keep your distance!” “Cover your face!” “Talk to me only through plexiglas!” “Don’t you dare try to shake my hand!” “Work at home or otherwise in isolation as much as possible!” “Let’s meet by Zoom rather than, heaven forbid, face-to-face!” “We must trace your contacts before allowing you into our presence!” “Don’t congregate in restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and community swimming pools!”

This inhuman – for it is inhuman (and, hence, inhumane) – new way of life – or, rather, of “life” – is a bizarre manifestation of collectivism. The state, fueled not by liberal sensibilities but by collectivist ones, imposes on its subjects a way of life that, were the word not already spoken for, be called “individualism.” We the People are united only by our collective commitment to remain separated from each other.

How ironic. True individualism – that is, the individualism of liberalism – is typically caricatured by Progressives and other of its enemies as an ideology whose proponents believe that each person is an isolated egoist. Liberal individualism, we are told by those who oppose it, is a denial of human beings’ social nature.

Of course this portrayal of liberal individualism is utterly mistaken. Read the great liberals – scholars such as Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, Rose Wilder Lane, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick – and you will find celebrations of extensive social cooperation among strangers. You will find a steady insistence that each human being is constant need of the assistance of countless strangers. You will find denials – implicit and explicit – that each person is, or wishes to be, or should be, an island off to himself or herself.

In 2020, however, there has arisen a new individualism, one quite the opposite of liberal individualism. An accurate name for this new individualism is “collective individualism.” It teaches that each person should, as much as possible, truly isolate himself or herself and to be fearful of strangers. “Strangers can kill you simply by being near you! Beware!”

The horror of a “society” populated with individuals petrified by fear and loathing of strangers is tremendous. No such society can thrive. And no sensible individual would wish to live in that hell.

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