The Independent Individual

By Diana Mertz Brickell

Date: Tue, 31 Jan 1995 18:08:50 -0600 (CST)

From: "D.M. Brickell"

Subject: The Independant Individual

The question of which economic/political system, socialism or capitalism, brings the individuals of a nation the most prosperity, security, and happiness, has I believe, already been definitively answered by economics and history. Economic theory has repeatedly shown that greater economic freedom substantially elevates quality of life and effectively solves problems common to all members of society. For example, American schools cannot be revitalized by the infusion of more money (which has consistently failed), but rather by making public schools responsive to supply and demand, i.e. by giving parents choice of schools and eventually privatizing the entire public school system. Economist F. A. Hayek also demonstrated the sheer impossibility of the type of economic calculation required in socialism, thus predicting the failure of any government's attempt to orchestrate the economy.

History has unfortunately confirmed these economic predictions through the deaths and poverty of millions trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Almost every aspect of life in these Soviet Block nations, from Stalin's death camps to Checkpoint Charlie to bread lines, testifies to the failure of socialism to bring the promised prosperity.

Even the more moderate socialist nations, like France and Denmark, continue to struggle against the irresponsibility, apathy, and incompetence that socialism breeds.

Yet these lessons of economics and history do not address the problems that Soviet Russia and her former satellites are currently experiencing in their emergence from socialism. The years since glassnost have seen hardships which cannot be attributed to the economic growing pains of privatization and of newly emerging markets, but which are the political and psychological consequences of abandoning a totalitarian society for a free one. The insecurity about employment, the popularity of political figures like Zhirinovsky, the plummeting birth rates, and the calls for return to socialist rule are all manifestations of these transitional problems, which must be addressed if the full beneficial effects of capitalism are to be experienced.

The most pressing political problems of the transition are the absence of ideological consensus of political leaders and the absence of a legal infrastructure through which government can protect rights, especially newly emerging property rights. Ideological consensus, at least in broad principles, is a precondition for any reconception of the role of government, but the political ideologies in the former Soviet Block range from communist to fascist to capitalist. The sheer lack of agreement about the proper function of government precludes any substantial, positive changes in role of government in the lives of individuals.

The lack of ideological consensus in former socialist states is, at least in part, a consequence of the United States' domestic and foreign policies. At home, the U.S. has rejected capitalism in favor of a heavily mixed economy, by heavily regulating markets, establishing and expanding entitlement programs, and flagrantly violating individual rights. It is no wonder that the former socialist nations are hesitant to rid themselves of all the vestiges of socialism when the role model of capitalism to the world is flirting with socialist healthcare. Abroad, advocating unlimited democracy, the view that a nation is free so long as it votes, even if the majority votes the minority into slavery or the only candidates are dictators, has been part of Washington's foreign policy for decades, and thus is often equated with capitalism. This ideal of pure democracy being exported into the former Soviet states, because it holds majority opinion over objective law, is impeding one of the necessary preconditions of capitalism: the protection of rights.

The necessity of a strong system of rights, particularly property rights, is a precondition of the functioning of free markets, and establishing the means to protect rights, i.e. a constitution, an objective legal code, and a court system, is an amazingly difficult task, even with ideologically similar political leaders. During the birth of the United States, there was common ground between the Founding Fathers, plus they benefitted from having much of England's common law already established. But the former Soviet nations have no such luxuries, which only makes this crucial task all the more difficult.

The lack of ideological consensus, I believe, is a reflection of the deeper insecurities of the populace about life in a free society, about whether the material gains of capitalism are worth the psychological cost of living independent of authority. These widespread insecurities about life in capitalism are the result of psychological trauma, "the trauma of people who must now take responsibility for their lives after living for decades in a political environment that made it impossible." (Kelley 1994 , 4) This psychological trauma is probably the most formidable barrier to a successful transition into capitalism, for it involves individuals' most fundamental orientation towards reality and other individuals, and hence determines their commitment to t he freedom of capitalism.

Any totalitarian or socialist government, because the state dictates almost all aspect of an individual's life, drives a wedge between an individual's independent judgment about what he ought to do and his actions. Individuals are forbidden to conduct t heir lives as they see fit, either because the government openly threatens violence or because choices are limited to such an extent that if an individual wishes to survive, there is only one course of action open to him -- compliance. The individual who keeps his mind active, who remains aware that what is being done to his life is profoundly wrong, is a grave threat to a totalitarian state, and will probably not survive.

But the individual who refuses to think, who resolves the breach between his mind and his actions by suspending the activities of his mind, is rewarded by the state with his life (even if it is one no longer worth having).

This progeny of totalitarianism has been stripped of his independence of mind, and of all of its corollaries -- self-motivation, self-responsibility, self-esteem. If an individual cedes his judgment to the state, what motivates him to act is not the values that he chooses to pursue, but rather the force behind the state's directives. Self-responsibility also dies under totalitarianism because one cannot be responsible for actions that were taken under threat of force. Self-esteem, the idea that an individual is competent to live, is quickly eroded when an individual gives up on his mind, and turns his judgment over to the state, for he is implicitly saying that his mind isn't capable of sustaining him (although the mind of a bureaucrat is) and that h is own life isn't worth fighting for. Individuals who have given up these virtues -- independence, self-motivation, self-responsibility, and self-esteem -- cannot easily regain them, but the individual who was born under totalitarians and who never learn ed that these virtues were asserts rather than liabilities, faces an even harder psychological metamorphosis.

In contrast, success in a capitalist nation depends upon the very virtues which totalitarianism destroys -- independence of the mind, courage to act on one's own judgment, willingness to take risks and bear responsibility. In capitalism, mutually beneficial exchange is the rule; no values can be obtained through coercion, such as claiming "entitlements" of need. Thus the shift from socialism to capitalism requires more than just economic or political changes; it requires a profound, widespread change i n the way that individuals approach their own lives. Capitalism requires what philosopher David Kelley calls an "entrepreneurial outlook on life," which is "in part a sense of self-ownership, a conviction that one's life is one's own, not something for which one must answer to some higher power, . . . [in part] a willingness to set the terms of one's life--to form convictions, to choose goals and values, and to make decisions--by one's own judgment, without dependence on others, and in part . . . a spirit of self-reliance, initiative, and alertness to opportunity, a belief that life is what you make of it." (Kelley 1994, 4) The success of capitalism in America can be partially traced back to the fact that most of these virtues are an integral part of the American identity, because Americans forged their own identity in a new nation, by throwing off tyranny and replacing it with a government that was the servant of citizens.

The former Soviet nations have no such independent national identity; they have only ever been the subjects of kings or of the Communist Party. So their new found freedom over their own lives will be disconcerting to a great many people for many years, but with the growth of capitalism, which requires this independent individual, the insecurities will slowly fade. This creation of an independent national identity will not only serve the happiness of the individuals who compose the nation, but will also serve as a insurance against the next totalitarian ideology that promises a utopia build upon corpses.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Daniel, Roger Miller, and Douglass North. 1993. The Economics of Public Issues. New York:


Kelley, David. 1994. "The Entrepreneuarial Life." IOS Journal 4.4.

Rand, Ayn. 1967. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet.

-=- Diana Mertz Brickell -=- Washington University -=- St-Louis, MO -=-

"Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values." -Ayn Rand



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