Much of political philosophy can be traced back, in some form or another, to this simple question: ‘who decides?’ This is the question that Dr Ernst Roets, during the course of a broadside attack on (liberal) individualism, neatly avoids in his recent article, ‘When liberal democracy becomes the problem’.

It is easy to say that money must be spent ‘wisely’; but who ultimately makes the choice about how the money will be spent? It is easy to say people must live ‘morally’; but who ultimately decides what is and what is not moral?

Ivo Vegter beat me to the punch in framing a liberal rejoinder to Roets’ article. There is much to agree (and some to disagree) with in Vegter’s piece but, having spent quite a bit of time in the same circles Roets has, I believe my response is slightly more charitable to the communitarian position.

There is likely not a huge gulf of fundamental difference between Roets and my conceptions of the wise and of the good. We do not even disagree all that much about public policy. Chances are that on every major policy issue facing South Africa today, Roets and I (and likely Vegter) are of one mind.

But Roets is a communitarian conservative, and I am an individualist liberal.

What gives?

To the liberal, ‘who decides?’ is a crucial question of principle. To a communitarian conservative – and those of many other schools of political thought – it is ultimately a pragmatic consideration. This is where Roets and I diverge.

But before getting into the points of disagreement, it is worth noting that Roets is entirely correct that there are problems with ‘modern liberalism’. This term – ‘modern liberalism’ – is, much like calling Cyril Ramaphosa the ‘head of government’ or land redistribution ‘justice’, a misleading one.

While those who laid the groundwork for modern liberalism were liberals properly so understood (Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, and Leonard T Hobhouse, among others), those who laid the groundwork for classical liberalism were by today’s standards conservatives. Modern liberalism is in fact not liberalism. It is what is sometimes called ‘social democracy’, or ‘progressivism’.

And while the highway to social democracy and progressivism might only be accessible via a classical liberal offramp, these remain distinct things.

A death cult that utilises Christianity to establish some substantive basis for its perverse agenda is not in itself a Christian phenomenon when one peers beneath the surface.

Or, one must also take a road down communitarianism before one can ultimately arrive at Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the mass suicide at Jonestown. That does not make of Pol Pot or Jim Jones communitarians.

Just as communitarian conservatives do not have to carry the baggage of communism and death cults, classical liberals do not have to carry the baggage of social democracy and contemporary progressivism.

Liberals like myself agree with Roets that social democracy – ‘modern liberalism’ – is a problem to be addressed. But rather than addressing social democracy, Roets unfortunately appears more interested in addressing and thrashing classical liberalism and individualism.

Saving democracy from liberalism

Without putting it in so many words, Roets appears to want to ‘save’ democracy from liberalism. But whatever problems Roets might have with liberalism are the fault of liberalism’s (perhaps regrettable, however perhaps historically unavoidable) flirtation with democracy. In other words, in the term ‘liberal democracy’ it is ‘democracy’, not ‘liberal’, that one should be uneasy with.

Every false and real harm liberalism has ostensibly done to society has been a result of democracy, not the freedom of the individual. And if we want to solve the problem, we must solve the democratic problem and leave liberty undisturbed.

Democracy is valuable because it harmonises what could otherwise be a very bloody affair: determining who should be at the steering wheel of the political authority. But democracy also has rent-seeking and unconstrained growth built into its fabric.

It is not merely ‘liberal democracy’ that leads to political perversion, though, but any democracy eventually leads to some of the worst excesses of its modifier (whether ‘liberal’, ‘national’, ‘Christian’, ‘Islamic’, or ‘social’). This is because democracy, quite illiberally, leads to the outsourcing of responsibility.

Vote our troubles away

If we can vote our troubles away rather than doing the hard work of actually solving them, democracy rather than responsibility becomes the path of least resistance. Other people, then, become ultimately responsible for solving our problems.

Liberal individualism sits uneasily with this, because one’s problems, opportunities, failures, and successes are properly one’s own to deal with. One may ask for help, of course, and others are free to give it, but one cannot conscript others into solving one’s problems or mitigating one’s failures, nor can anyone else rightly interfere with one’s successes and opportunities.

Democratic rent-seeing is inevitable because the competitive nature of the democratic system necessarily rewards (and thus incentivises) those who promise ever more and greater benefits to the electorate. Since the State has no resources of its own, this can only be achieved by taking (increasingly) from some and giving to others.

The unconstrained growth of democracy is also a moral problem that liberal individualism objects to. Because democracy is good, the thinking seems to go, there is no reason to limit it merely to electing the government. It must be extended ever outwards, until the boardroom, the pulpit, and eventually the bedroom, is ‘democratised’.

Democracy, properly, should be concerned with one question only: ‘who’ will administer the political authority? Instead, democracy today is concerned with many further questions, including most prominently ‘what’ should the political authority do?

One might think this is trite. But it is not so clear to most people.

When new parents choose a crèche for their child, they are not concerned with ‘what’ the crèche will do: a crèche is a crèche. Parents simply choose the one (the ‘who’) they think is best at being a crèche. We do not expect McDonald’s to look after our children, because McDonald’s is not a crèche. We also do not expect to find takeaways at a crèche. It does not even occur to us. The nature of the thing (a crèche or a takeaways) determines its purpose.

The state, liberal individualists argue – just like other institutions – has a distinct nature that determines its narrow purpose.

Far from our allowing the nature of the state to determine its purpose, the democratic impulse has led to endless expansion of the purpose of the state, predictably leading to all sorts of ridiculous and harmful consequences. If we expect a crèche to sell takeaways, we can expect the food to be of an inferior quality. We can also expect our children to be neglected if we drop them off at McDonald’s to be cared for.

It is no surprise – at least to ‘classical’ liberals like myself – that the State is doing immense harm today in those fields the State has no business being involved in. This is, in large part, the consequence of unconstrained democracy.

Disengaged individual

The other major dimension of Roets’ broadside is the criticism that liberal democracy – but in particular, liberal individualism – leads to ‘disengaged individuals’ who feel no sense of ‘responsibility’ toward their communities.

The immediate rejoinder here is that there is no such thing as a ‘disengaged individual’ – simply an individual who is disengaged in the things that you value, and engaged in the things you do not.

In fact, I can think of many people in the African national-socialist movement who likely believe that Roets is himself a ‘disengaged individual’ because he is not actively doing the work necessary to achieve socioeconomic transformation in South Africa. And rightly so, because Roets has a different value hierarchy from theirs.

This is why the criticism against liberalism of ‘atomistic’ or ‘disengaged’ individualism at best comes down to a total misunderstanding of individualism, or a purposeful ‘strawmanning’ of it. No liberal, to my knowledge, has ever advocated an individual without bonds, nor has any liberal society produced one. In fact, the most serious liberal thinkers have gone to great lengths to emphasise the importance of community and intermediary institutions.

Individualism is, in other words, not anti-community. Every individual is irresistibly part of a community. No matter how hedonistically cosmopolitan and libertine one might get, one still ultimately finds oneself a member of at least one community: of hedonistic cosmopolitan libertines.

Unlike Vegter, I do not believe there is a (necessary) ‘incompatibility’ between liberal individualism and communitarian conservatism. These two approaches speak to very different things: Liberalism – I insist – is an exclusively legal-political philosophy. It speaks only to the state and to the government, and the role that lawful coercion may and may not play in society. On the untold numbers of other ‘things’ relevant to a healthy and well-functioning society, liberalism has absolutely no inclination one way or the other.

Conservatism, on the other hand, can mean many things (unlike the term ‘liberalism’, ‘conservatism’ is necessarily relative), but in general is an inclination to conserve what has been good in history. On this interpretation, most ‘classical’ liberals are in fact also conservatives, to the extent that they wish to conserve the Western understanding of limited constitutional government.

Professor Koos Malan has formulated an apt descriptor of this exclusively legal-political phenomenon: ‘statist-individualist constitutionalism’. This kind of individualism concerns itself exclusively with the relationship between the human person and the organised institution of lawful coercion: the state.

Liberal individualism passes no judgment whatsoever on things like bigotry, climate change, suicide, civilisational degeneracy, unearned privilege, or whatever the culture-war flavour of the month is. It leaves the community entirely free to make whatever life it desires for itself. It is only when the community or any other institution becomes the state or becomes co-opted by the state that liberal individualist rules – known as ‘constitutionalism’ – step into the breach.

Liberal individualism does not venerate ‘the Individual’ as some atomistic Übermensch who is all-knowing and at the centre of the universe. Instead, it simply recognises this simple truth: even the most average and basic person is the only being – other than God Himself – who can peer into their own mind. Only the individual can manifest when they are hungry or thirsty. Only the individual can think, and only the individual can (physically) feel. Only the individual can understand and accept responsibility for their conduct.

This is all biological reality, and liberal individualism does no more than take reality seriously. Community is just as natural as the individual, but community (outside of the ‘community’ of reproduction) is not a biological phenomenon. This is to say that the individual necessarily predates the community, and that the principles governing politics must therefore begin with the individual.

Responsibility and obligation

Roets argues that liberal individualism ‘doesn’t see the individual as part of a larger community with responsibilities and obligations, but rather as a being that can easily detach itself from these things’.

This sentiment is exactly why answering ‘who decides?’ is so crucial an exercise. If a Cape Town imam arrives at Roets’ house to demand the property to be used for a Muslim school, Roets will rightly protest that he has no responsibility or obligation to hand it over. He is, after all, not part of the Muslim community, and even if he was, he did not agree to sacrifice his residence.

Obligation flows from choice. It cannot do otherwise. And, yes, being a member of a community is ultimately (if not immediately upon birth) a choice. While I consider myself an Afrikaner, if some Afrikaner volk council demands that I paint my house orange, I can – barring any kind of prior agreement – comfortably claim that I am not a member of that particular Afrikaner community. I can opt-out, and I certainly must be legally allowed to do so.

To accept that obligation might have roots outside of choice is to also accept the perverse idea that Afrikaners today are responsible for the decisions taken by ministers 90 years ago to exclude black people from parts of the formal economy. It is to accept that a 16-year-old white American girl in rural Alaska must ‘apologise’ and somehow make amends for the institution of slavery that ceased, over a century ago, in the American South. It is to accept that a Russian ballerina should humbly accept being disinvited from an international competition because of choices made by Vladimir Putin.

Liberals and moreover liberal individualists believe very firmly in responsibility and obligation. A key liberal value, emanating from ancient Rome, is pacta sunt servanda – agreements must be kept, and if not kept, may be compelled. But obligation must flow from at least an initial, real choice.

Ancient freedom

I have sympathy for Roets’s romantic characterisation of freedom. He quotes from Galatians to argue that, ‘To be free is not to “indulge in the flesh”, but rather to live in the fruit of the spirit, i.e., to do good in obedience to God, and not to promote your own interests at the expense of others’.

He refers to ancient Athens, where freedom meant ‘the movement from potentiality to actuality, i.e., to fulfil on earth what [we are] called upon to do’.

Or the Roman concept, where true freedom meant fulfilling ‘our duties toward God, our communities, our descendants, and even our ancestors’. Roets refers to Cicero who elaborated that we must ‘preserve the good things we have inherited from [our ancestors] for our children’.

It is ‘anti-liberal heresy’ to regard freedom as such today, argues Roets. Liberalism should be ‘resisted’ insofar as it is ‘ideological’ with the consequence of ‘disengaged individualism at the expense of the bigger picture’.

Roets is correct that the ancient conception of so-called ‘freedom’ was different from that of today. But it is entirely possible – and often the case – that it is the ancients who got it wrong, not the moderns. We recognise this easily in scientific and technological endeavours, but conservatives in particular place ‘ancient values’ on a pedestal. And some ancient understandings are better than contemporary ones, but this is not necessarily the case.

As Benjamin Constant explained, ancient freedom meant ‘exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty’. This included debating war and peace, forming alliances, judging criminal cases, and auditing government spending. This so-called ‘liberty’ was a collective phenomenon. The ancient individual – with some exceptions, such as one living in Athens (but not other parts of Greece) – knew little legal autonomy.

Constant writes, ‘All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labour, nor, above all, to religion.’ Choosing a religion different from that of the community would have been criminal. Family life was regimented in line with whatever the elite determined the mores and customs of the community to have been.

Clearly this is not something we should wish to mimic today. All around the world, but in particular in South Africa, we have experienced in excruciatingly painful fashion that the political elite is not competent to rule well. ‘Let’s get a better elite’ is not a sentiment one can honestly hide behind without ultimately stumbling to the conclusion that liberal individualism’s insistence on choice and voluntarism must be binding.

The wisdom of Hayek

Perhaps to Roets’s dismay, the great classical liberal, Friedrich von Hayek, in an insightful Finlay Lecture in 1945, described Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville – also invoked by Roets in service of communitarianism – as two of the greatest ‘true individualists’, among Adam Smith, Lord Acton, John Locke, and others.

‘False individualism’, which counts among its greatest representatives Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism.’ Hayek, of course, rejected this second, false pretender’s claim to being an ‘individualism’ at all, rather classifying it as a source of collectivism.

Actual individualism, explained Hayek, is first a ‘theory’ of society, or ‘an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man’. Only secondly can individualism be said to be ‘a set of political maxims derived from this view of society’.

Individualism does not ‘postulate the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals’ and if it did, ‘it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society’. Rather, individualism postulates that ‘there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behaviour’. This individualism was developed in response to the indubitably false collectivist notion that ‘social wholes like society, etc., [are] entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them’.

The ‘false individualism’ – in fact collectivism – of French rationalism, which is likely what Roets’s broadside should be aimed at, unlike actual individualism, does not appreciate that ‘the spontaneous collaboration of free men often creates things which are greater than their individual minds can ever fully comprehend’.

True individualism ‘is a product of an acute consciousness of the limitations of the individual mind which induces an attitude of humility toward the impersonal and anonymous social processes by which individuals help to create things greater than they know’, and false (say) individo-collectivism ‘is the product of an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason and of a consequent contempt for anything which has not been consciously designed by it or is not fully intelligible to it’.

Individo-collectivism ‘necessarily leads to the conclusion that social processes can be made to serve human ends only if they are subjected to the control of individual human reason, and thus lead directly to socialism’. But individualism ‘believes on the contrary that, if left free, men will often achieve more than individual human reason could design or foresee’.

The ‘main merit’ of Adam Smith’s true individualism, Hayek wrote, is:

‘[…] that it is a system under which bad men can do the least harm. It is a social system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they are now, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid. Their [Smith, Burke, De Tocqueville, et al.] aim was a system under which it should be possible to grant freedom to all, instead of restricting it, as their French contemporaries wished, to “the good and the wise”.’

Hayek elaborated:

‘The chief concern of the great individualist writers was indeed to find a set of institutions by which man could be induced, by his own choice and from the motives which determined his ordinary conduct, to contribute as much as possible to the need of all others; and their discovery was that the system of private property did provide such inducements to a much greater extent than had yet been understood.’

In another work, the more famous The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek wrote that, ‘A society that does not recognize that each individual has values of his own which he is entitled to follow can have no respect for the dignity of the individual and cannot really know freedom.’ (Hat-tip to the Governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, who reminded me of this quote on Twitter recently.)

This is to say, the ancients, with their conception of freedom, had not yet realised the key importance of private property and of according to individuals their due recognition. The ancients had better insight than we have into many things. Fortunately, freedom is not one of them.

Social engineering

The South African Institute of Race Relations’ John Kane-Berman wrote in 2002 that authoritarians on both the left and right believe that:

‘Man must be re-made into a higher ethical being, society purged of socially undesirable elements and behaviour, the common good promoted, etc. Implicit in all of these visions are several other assumptions. One is that these more desirable forms of society can be defined. Another is that everyone will agree what they are. A third is that the state has the wisdom and the ability to bring them about.’

Liberals dispute that the state (whether it regards itself as the expression of the will of the community or not) has any such wisdom.

In ‘The pretence of knowledge’, Hayek wrote that, ‘To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely make us do much harm.’ Hayek continued:

‘The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.’

Who decides?

It is here, praising the ancient concepts of what was errantly regarded as ‘freedom’, where Roets neatly avoids our most crucial question: who decides? And Hayek alludes to the clear answer: it should be the individual who decides, in voluntary cooperation with their fellows.

As far as ‘Jerusalem’ is concerned, who decides that someone is doing good in obedience to God? As far as ‘Athens’ is concerned, who decides that someone is fulfilling what they have been called upon to do? And as far as ‘Rome’ is concerned, who decides what our duties to God, community, descendants, and ancestors are? What are the ‘good things’ we must preserve?

Roets and I will come up with different answers to these things. I have even seen communitarian conservatives disagree among each other on these fundamental questions.

As a liberal individualist, I sincerely happen to believe that one can only do good in obedience to God if one – the individual – chooses freely to do so. Being compelled to ‘do good’, even Biblical good, is no virtue.

What I think must be preserved would also differ radically from what Roets believes should be preserved. I am an advocate of the benefits of Western civilisation precisely because I regard the Western liberal tradition to be worth its weight in gold, and that if I had to choose one thing from Western civilisation to preserve, that would be it.

To all these questions, who decides? The only answer resembling coherence must be that the individual decides. The community can set rules and have certain powers, but it cannot compel an individual to remain in the community, nor can it impose its rules or exercise its powers upon those individuals who are not part of the community.

Action vs rhetoric

What makes me sympathetic towards and even supportive of communitarian conservatives in South Africa – I am a paying member of AfriForum – is that they tend to channel a very necessary and constructive anti-state, pro-community, can-do ethic. I nonetheless think they sometimes unnecessarily undermine their own cause by praising authoritarians abroad and authoritarianism in the abstract, not realising that recognising such undue authority on the part of the state is precisely what is harming community autonomy in South Africa.

Communitarian conservatives in South Africa, very oddly, live out, in action, voluntarism and consensualism better than most liberals do, but often engage in the rhetoric of authoritarianism. (I speak here in general terms rather than identifying Roets in particular.) This tends ironically to be reversed elsewhere, where authoritarians say they respect choice and freedom but in practice undermine it.

My hope is that the freedom-loving conduct of South Africa’s communitarian conservatives will always predominate over the echoes of authoritarianism in their rhetoric, and that they will realise liberal individualism is not an enemy of their values, but a complementary framework-setting philosophy that ensures that different individuals and communities can live in harmony.


The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Martin also serves as the Editor of the IRR’s History Project and its Race Law Project, and is an advisor to the Free Speech Union SA. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit