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by Ian Tartt
Libertarians have a reputation for being “atomistic”. Those who attach this label to libertarians assume that they think the individual is all that matters or that cooperation is unnecessary. Let’s take a look at some problems with that type of thinking.
When libertarians talk about individual effort, they are not saying that an individual can do everything by himself or that there is nothing he can gain from working with another person. Rather, they are pointing out that the individual is the foundation of every group, community, and society. There can be a lot of individuals in the same area without forming a group, but there can’t be a group without individuals. Likewise, without individual effort, there can be no group effort.
Accordingly, libertarians recognize the value of voluntary cooperation and free markets. An example of the latter is this video of Milton Friedman talking about what goes into making a pencil. Another example is libertarians helping victims of natural disasters, such as those who’ve been hurt by Hurricane Harvey in Texas through the Liberty Coalition for Disaster Relief. Both examples require thousands of individuals coming together and working voluntarily toward a common goal; libertarians would not applaud or participate in such activities if they didn’t believe in teamwork.
Some who accuse others of atomistic thinking do so because they either think of or want to portray their targets as being indifferent to other people. This criticism certainly doesn’t apply to libertarians who participate in relief programs or help people in other charitable ways. Further, libertarians believe in individual rights. Rather than putting people into groups and assigning them value based on which groups they’re in, they say that everyone has value and rights by virtue of being human. This distinguishes libertarianism from other philosophies that value some people more than others or say that certain people are not deserving of rights for reasons that are beyond their control. How can anyone who understands this accuse libertarians of being indifferent to others?
In conclusion, individualism doesn’t equal atomism. Believing that every individual has certain inherent rights and recognizing that group effort first requires individual effort are quite different than not caring about anyone outside of the self or rejecting cooperation. If this article has helped explain the important difference between the two, then it will have served its purpose.