It Takes a (Certain Kind of) Village

One of the advantages socialists have these days is the poverty of our political culture, especially as it pertains to our (lack of) understanding of the rights they are in the process of stripping from us.

Those nobly seeking to escape the servitude into which we are rapidly slipping, drawing from a conceptual toolbox within easy reach, tend to make their case in terms of individual liberties.

Though freedom lovers are correct to insist that rights belong to individual persons, however, their rhetoric sometimes seems to neglect crucial facts about the human condition. For instance, the fact that one person can only claim a “right” or “liberty” in relation to another person through the medium of our common membership in society.

If rights began and ended with individuals, they would not be rights at all. Without a shared basis of mutual obligation, demanding that someone else recognize what’s mine as mine is the moral equivalent of spitting into the wind.

Taking advantage of our instinctive recognition of this social dimension of the human person, ideologues pit concepts such as “social justice” against our personal freedoms, as if honoring one side of this false dichotomy required the denigration of the other.

Any proper defense of freedom must not only acknowledge but embrace its social character. Here it is helpful to turn once more to the writings of Henry Veatch.

The only viable basis of moral obligation, Veatch ably demonstrates, is our duty (and desire) to perfect ourselves. As political animals, however, we cannot approximate perfection ourselves alone.

To achieve a tolerable level of self-improvement, I must participate in society. There, I will encounter others with a similarly political nature. If I fail to respect their humanity, not only do I risk my own expulsion from society, but I also violate my own rational nature by treating one thing (my fellow man) as another (perhaps a tool, or a distraction).

What then does it mean to respect someone’s humanity? Among other things, it means to respect his need for the advantages of society. To exclude anyone from society is to place obstacles in the way of his self-perfection, thereby wounding his own humanity and my own.

Like our culturally ascendant neo-Marxists, Veatch stresses that society fosters justice or the common good by providing a web of systems through which persons can obtain the goods requisite to their personal fulfillment. Such systems include everything tending to intellectual, moral, spiritual, and physical health—from education and religion to food and medicine.

Contrary to fashionable propaganda, however, Veatch demonstrates not only that such systems need not provide such goods free of charge, or in mathematically equal quantities. Crucially, he explains why any system attempting to guarantee perfectly equal access to such goods tends to deprive everyone of conditions essential to human flourishing.

One reason socialism fails to deliver the common good is that the greatest goods of human life are not measurable in mathematical terms, nor can they be distributed like material things. As Plato noted, no matter how much wisdom one man possesses, he cannot give it to another who is not willing to acquire it for himself.

Even in material things, which in principle can be shared, a similar dynamic arises. Since freedom is part of man’s nature, no system depriving him of it is compatible with his perfection. This is why communism flourishes in small communities called to an exceptional way of life, while attempts to impose it on whole political societies issue in horrors of technocratic slavery and mass murder.

In sum, the yahoos are not wrong to insist that it takes a village to live a happy life. Instead, they err in using terms such as “village” as euphemisms for systems of soul-crushing despotism.

If we wish to thwart the tyrannical forces running rampant in our world, let us remember to couple our call for freedom with an equal enthusiasm for the preservation and restoration of healthy social systems.

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