Problems of Anarchism


4.—Progress and Individual Conduct.

Not only do ideas conform to existing conditions and opportunity for their realization, but they correspond to modes of life that have already been passed through. The idea arising out of the latest conditions of existence is frequently at variance with the conception covering the same ground which originated in a former and dissimilar state. Hence we continually meet with views the most contradictory on questions of principle, about which there could be no dispute if the natural phenomena underlying the matter were in their order of development thoroughly known and understood. What are the tendencies of present political and economic growth and their relation to the individual? To these questions I believe a rational and not uncertain answer should and can be given, despite the confusion and almost hopeless disagreements among the professors.

It has been shown that the ideas of political and religious liberty have grown and continue to expand in men’s minds, that they do so in conformity to a natural want common to all life, and that the principles corresponding to these aspirations are exemplified, in fact, in the great intellectual movements and social tendencies of modern times. We can go a step farther now, and say that such needs and ideas necessarily develop and become more imperative as the opportunity for their growth, the conditions favorable to their realization come into existence. The one is complementary to the other; the growth of the former hastens the extension of the latter, and conversely, till the aim is fully realized. Progress then moves ever more rapidly; at every step it quickens its pace.

If we are to accept the conclusions of the critics of capitalism,—that is, the existing economic condition of society,—we must believe that economic liberty is more impossible now than in pre-capitalistic times. Wage-slavery is merely the modern phase of chattel slavery. Individual freedom is violated by present economic arrangements even more than it was in previous states. These critics, while apparently agreeing with modern science as regards the order of man’s development, nevertheless take pretty much the same attitude as J. J. Rousseau and the older schools of Communists, who in one form or another held that man began in a perfect state of natural liberty, equality, etc., and that he had somehow strayed away from this free and happy condition, to which it was right and proper he should, as quickly as need be, return.

A variation on the tune of the Garden of Eden. Communists and others who on economic grounds today attack society of course repudiate the above method of criticism and talk evolution in order, it would seem, to keep up with the fashion. We must see now if the belief in evolution together with the facts through which it speaks will warrant us in classifying capitalism as an economic retrogression: determine whether personal freedom has advanced or been retarded in the economic process. A bugbear here meets us, about which something must be said before we proceed. Individualism, as it is made to appear in Socialistic writings, is a dreadful monster, a thing accursed, a criminal of the blackest dye. Now it is useless to pretend that this whole essay, dealing chiefly with individual sovereignty, is not open to all the objections which are commonly laid to the door of the much-berated creature, individualism. Here we are tempted into a moral disquisition, for in truth economics, unless looked at by the light which natural ethics can shed upon the subject, remains barren and avails nothing.

The good angel opposing individualism is, we must infer, in general collectivist Socialism, in its narrower sense mutual aid, ethically altruism. Thus taken egoistically some truths will at this point not be out of place. Egoism implies perfect individualism. They are two sides of the same thing, which grows according as the conditions are more or less favorable. Mutual aid, coöperation, collective effort, often conduce to egoistic satisfaction, to individual welfare. Perfect individualism therefore implies those kinds of conduct. Such conduct is altruistic. The individual freely pursuing his own welfare is led to act for the good of others, to conduct which is altruistic. The individual freely pursuing his own welfare is led to act for the good of others, to conduct which is altruistic. To whatever extent this latter is carried, it necessarily has its origin in self-satisfaction. Moreover, it is inseparable from any form of social life, which could neither exist nor be of any advantage without it.

Altruism, unless it is spontaneous and voluntary, has no ethical value. Every kind of conduct, and more especially the ideas from which it springs, is determined by the conditions under which life is carried on. The mode of life most favorable to altruism is precisely that which secures the highest degree of egoism or individualism. As consideration for others always arises in the first instance out of regard for self, and as causes determine effects and not conversely, so, if the aim be the good of others or altruism, then individualism—the condition out of which it arises—must be given the fullest opportunity for development.

The Socialistic attack on individualism as an economic factor will be dealt with at more length later on. At present I desire to point out simply that, as I understand it, there is not necessarily any antagonism between complete individualism and general happiness, that the one can be attained only in proportion as the other becomes possible. Nor do I infer that individual conduct without restraint is always beneficial to others. But to suppress the individual in the supposed interest of others is really where the danger lies. Neither do I deny that a knowledge of the laws which govern conduct, irrespective of the individual will, would prove of service to each in regulating his actions toward others; but conformity to such laws is not a matter of obligation, except in so far as consequences render it so. Natural law from a moral standpoint enjoins nothing, enforces nothing, carries no obligation. When stated and its consequences known, the individual is free to disregard it, but only temporarily, as a man may risk an injury or even his life to accomplish some greater end. For it is impossible to traverse natural sequences continuously without suffering or death somewhere ensuing. Hence after all nature is absolute, the highest conduct is that which most closely conforms to her requirements; while there is no must, there is still the highest satisfaction for each and all to be derived from that conduct which is best. In this spirit alone do we formulate right and wrong, what is beneficial and what is injurious, and point out the laws of social health. Such is the method and aim of this inquiry. There remains but one remark to add on the above head. The good and truly moral conduct or mode of life is that which is the spontaneous expression of individual desires and activities, free from feelings of obligation or conscious regard for consequences. And this spontaneously natural conduct under favorable conditions—that is, freedom—tends ever to become the best for self and others.

After this digression, we can resume the inquiry into capitalism.

Wm. Bailie

This article is part of a serial: Problems of Anarchism.