individualism

A Libertarian Thought on Individualism and African Morality

By: Ibrahim B Anoba

The individual in African philosophy mostly existed as a reflection of his community. He was seen as a product of his tribe less than he was an independent being. His birth and death were to satisfy the wishes of the gods on earth. Like many tribes in Africa, several cultures according to history put the individual as a unique creation with the purpose of happiness and self-realization.

In traditional Africa, it was best that the individual remained a social being. This view of man as a societal element primarily applied to his identification as a member of a united community in pursuant of collective prosperity with regards for his individual happiness. However, the expansion of groups during territorial wars and migration, increased community populations while conflict of interests among groups and individuals led to the gradual disassociation from the usual collective interest.

Hence, the idea of the individual as a communal element decreased as societies became bigger. During the hunting and gathering when community populations were very small, it was easy to commit everyone to a unified goal even as few members harbored personal interests. However, as people integrated and population augmented, the individual began to isolate itself because of the geometric increase in interests of new members against the collective. In some cases, people left their villages in pursuant of personal goals. Even, members of ruling families deserted their clans due to conflict of interest with their kin only to establish new territories later, and the conflict of interest continued to repeat itself prompting the definite decrease of collectivism.

Although, some African societies like the Xhosa and the Zulu emphasized the ideals of mutuality and community before the individual, there still existed self-interest. Classical liberals argued for a system that observes the society in light of its distinct members, for a society has no existence beyond the individuals that comprises it, while it is in itself a composition of different interests (Butler 2013). And the socio-economic consciousness of the society is the summary of individual consciousness. Friedrich Hayek puts it clear when he explained that the “associations within civil society exists for specific end while the civil society has no purpose; it is the undersigned, spontaneous emerging result of all those purposive associations” (Hayek 1988).

Despite this similarity in purpose, contentions still exist between the two folds on grounds of economic and social morality among Africans. On the economic fold, classical liberals outrightly argued for a free market economy chiefly run by individual choices and price, and this was a position common in most economies in traditional Africa. Markets were open and less regulated. In centralized communities such as the Buganda (Uganda), Hausa/Fulani (Nigeria) Akan (Ghana) and the Zulu (South Africa), there were large and open markets such that it attracted participation from communities hundreds of miles away. Trade ensued among communities in their specialized industries with limited or no restrictions, and one can safely deduce elements of David Ricardo‟s Comparative Advantage Theory – a cardinal in classical liberalism – existed in these communities even before it was theoretically developed in Europe.

One similar end to both African humanism and classical liberalism is in their emphasis on peace, progress and respect for human dignity through moral justifications. Though, the interpretation of these morals and their justifications is what differs. In traditional Africa, morality was whatever standard the community agreed to guide general conduct. To classical liberals, it is the respect for individual interests and choices, and both existed as the holding force for societal consciousness. In the former, values inherited through generations like equity and justice ensured a fair use of power and obedience to law to avoid conflicts among members and communities. Similarly, in the later, writers like Ludwig von Mises, Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say stressed the anti-imperialist and anti-warfare stance of classical liberalism.

They saw economic liberty of communities in a fair market system as a way to avoid wars and foster peace. In other words, traditional Africans percept morality as only attainable through inherited values, while classical liberals saw it in form of the peaceful decisions of individuals. Another misconception is the purported rejection of the principle of cooperation by classical liberals, which is in fact emphasized in their advocacy. The critics argued that market competition will eventually lead to unfair distribution of wealth and that African states were not ready for such experiment.

Conversely, classical liberals saw cooperation as important as competition is to the economy. American libertarian writer David Boaz explained that both “cooperation and competition are essential elements of the simple system of natural liberty, and most humans cooperate with one another than they do competing” (Boaz 2015).

In reality, cooperation is bound to ensue in a free-market economy because individuals cannot provide all their needs themselves and they must interact with others that can provide them in a mutually fair exchange. Then, the cycle goes round to build a system dependent on fair cooperation. Education, transportation, technology, entertainment and especially food are variables too complex in contemporary societies for an individual to produce. That an individual needs these to survive makes cooperation inevitable. Besides, cooperation gets people their desires the way they please because, production and consumption capacities vary among individuals and it remains best when people determine these themselves.

It is much safer than to have people equally providing the general need irrespective of their interests or sharing them equally regardless of their needs. Such scenario has invoked destructive economic bubbles in many African states.

The first generation writers on African philosophy falsely interpreted goodwill and solidarity to be state welfarism and collectivism. Even present writers usually claim capitalism has bitterly failed in Africa due to its emphasis on „self-interest‟. An average African still see the placement of self-interest above the collective as antithetical to African morality and it will ultimately monopolize dividends of the economy to a privileged few, whereas, it is the exact opposite.

In a society where people serve the interest of others at the detriment of theirs, such society rests on an economic thread because there are always a group that would not believe in serving others due to ambition or greed. This group will get exceedingly rich while others are busy working in their favour, and those that remained devoted the common-good will eventually get exploited and poor. On the long run, the poor group will likely react to such imbalance with a potential of instigating an economic disaster.

This scenario would not occur in a lawful and competitive system where everyone was self-interested because, value and profit is a win-win of a free market economy. To be self-interested is not to be greedy or exploitative; it is fairly pursuing one‟s desires for a betterment of life. Moreover, the individual best answer the question of his self-interest. Equally, many African academics remain wrong in their notion that contemporary African states practice capitalist systems copied from Western economies (Akpan 2004; Obot 2004; Abiodun 2015).

The first lapse is that the so-called African capitalist economies are in fact social-welfarist states with policies that negate the free market economy of true capitalism. Their economic systems are acutely crony. A cabal of wealthy men dominates key industries with state legislations protecting them. Such legislations usually include the imposition of high tariffs on industrial supplies to hold back emerging firms in specific industries. They also raise taxes on small businesses with many of their cronies often guilty of tax evasion.
They enact stringent policies to limit the registration of new firms and restrict foreign investment in these industries, all in the quest of protecting the interest of the wealthy few. In return, the cabal either heavily finances their political quests or act as their economic joker. These acts are common in the energy, petroleum, transportation and mining sectors of majority modern African states and outrightly negate anything true capitalism stands for.

Unbiased rankings and reports on economic policies of these African states continues to reveal series of economic patterns correlative to crony capitalism. In a free market economy on the other hand, policies that favours one group at the detriment of others would rarely exist, because true capitalism means giving everyone equal opportunity at individual pace without chauvinism or protectionism. Every individual would have equal access to market; tax rates on small businesses are relatively low and entrepreneurs can access foreign markets for exchange of materials and finished products. It is a complete opposite of a government controlled socialist system or a crony capitalist arrangement. Countries like of Coted’Ivore, Mauritius and Mozambique are presently experiencing massive economic growth due to commendable efforts towards a free market economy.

On social morality, a peculiar quality of the African life is the zeal to preserve culture and traditions even when in conflict with individual interest. As noted earlier, there was no unified lifestyle in traditional Africa except the common exhumation of culture and ancestral practices. In some communities, the ruling elites determined what was socially morally and what was not. In others, individuals had liberty to lead their desired life insofar it respects the liberty of others.

However, as generations, evolved, foreign influence penetrated the rigid cultures and newly inherited lifestyles influenced social moral standards. For example, practices like monarchy; forbidden of estate; genital mutilation; facial and body markings; execution of homosexuals and twins among others used to be culturally moral and formed the nucleus of social existence. But the effects of cultural interactions as communities expanded with time persistently redefined socially moral behaviors.

This is reflective in irregular changes in value and culture of modern African societies. Positions such as predetermined behavioural responsibility and blind adherence to authority ranked high decades ago, but revolts against authoritarianism, tyranny or subjective cultures in recent years corroborates this declination. Sorry enough, many traditionalists still see classical liberal principles as rather anarchist even as some African communities flourished under anarchy. Or adversative to traditional African principles: a sort of threat to Africa‟s historical identity.

Unlike the total anarchy assumption, classical liberals proposed an impartial system of justice in the custody of the state, but in trust, with some monopoly of force (if needed) to guarantee relative balance (Butler 2015). This was the exact structure in most of traditional Africa. Leaders and governing councils were guardians of values and preserved the justice system through impartial adherence to laws while public revolt was an option against tyranny.

Like many other race in human history, traditional Africans despised tyranny. The central authority only existed as representative of the gods on earth, to guide the living in the right conducts only. And as Otto Lehto explained, “in addition to being a doctrine of maximizing free and voluntary human cooperation, classical liberalism is a doctrine of legal limits to coercive actions” (Lehto 2015).
In African tradition, the individual was as important as life itself, and the respect for his dignity, a virtue. The only difference was that they saw the realization of individual prosperity as more realistic when embedded in the prosperity of his community. Even Kenneth Kaunda, a staunch African humanist agreed when he said:

“I am deeply concerned that this high valuation of Man and respect for human dignity, which is a legacy of our [African] tradition should not be lost in the new Africa. However “modern” and “advanced” in a Western sense the new nations of Africa may become, we are fiercely determined that this humanism will not be obscured. African society has always been Man-centred. We intend that it will remain so.” (Eze 1997, 42).

His submission serves well an historical correction for contemporaries.

REFERENCES
1. Akpan, N. 2015. “Structure of Self-Organized Traditional Financial Institutions in Nigeria: The Case of Etibe”. In, Nigerians and their Cultural Heritage, edited by Akpan U. Akpan and Abiodun J. Oluwabamide, 148-154. Lagos: Lisjohnson Resources. (Akpan 2015)
2. Boaz, David. 1997. Libertarianism: A Primer. Detroit: Free Press.(Boaz 1997)
3. Butler, Eamonn. 2015. Classical Liberalism – A Primer. London: Institute of Economic Affairs & London Publishing Partnership Ltd.. (Butler 2015)
4. Eze, C. E. 1997. Postcolonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers. (Eze 1997, 42)
5. Hayek, Friedrich. 1988. The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. (Hayek 1988)
6. Lehto, Otto. 2015. “The Three Principles of Classical Liberalism (From John Locke To John Thomas.” PhD diss., University of Helsinki. (Lehto 2015)
7. Obot, J.U.. 2004. “Nigeria: The Land, its Resources and the People.” In, The Nigerian Nation: Nigerian Peoples and Cultures, edited by M.B. Abasittai, I.I. Ukpong and G.J. Even own. Uyo: University of Uyo Press. (Obot 2004)
Published in Africanliberty.org MAY 21, 2017: http://www.africanliberty.org/a-libertarian-thought-on-individualism-and-african-morality-by-ibrahim-anoba/

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Everyone Loves This Book But Who Has Actually Read it?

After years of avoiding Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, I have decided to dedicate the next sixteen days to liveblogging each chapter.
 

I have never actually completed F.A. Hayek’s, The Road to Serfdom. I am completely comfortable admitting that. Still, like many who are intrigued with Hayek’s ideas but lack the willpower to read the entire book, I alway list The Road to Serfdom as one of my most influential readings.

To be sure, I had read the few chapters that were assigned to me by my school’s token libertarian political science professor. I assumed I had accurately interpreted its message. The three chapters I read were full of highlights and great quotes about the importance of the individual. But with all the other books out there in the world, why was finishing this one book so important?

Hayek makes it clear that this path refers to society’s “progressive” rejection of individualism.

It was not until my current mentor called me out on my inability to follow through on one of the most economically relevant books of all time, that I realized that I had robbed myself of an education by not finishing Hayek’s important work.

As a matter of millennial pride and also wanting to reclaim the knowledge I foolishly pushed aside as an undergrad student, I decided to dedicate the next sixteen days to both reading and liveblogging The Road to Serfdom.

The Individual Built the Modern World

Proponents of laissez faire capitalism and libertarian thinkers alike constantly throw around the phrase,” the road to serfdom.” And while most understand its general negativity towards socialism, the phrase is so ingrained in liberty speak that few often take the time to really explore what Hayek was trying to tell us.

In the book’s opening chapter, “The Abandoned Road,” Hayek makes it clear that this path refers to society’s “progressive” rejection of individualism. More importantly, he goes on to describe how this rejection of the sanctity of the individual has, and will continue to have, negative impacts on the society.

For a period of time, the western world had flourished under the 19th-century ideals of free market capitalism. For the first time in history, an individual was allowed to follow his own desired path without the status of his birth holding him back. All he needed was an idea and the ambition needed to make that idea a reality.

As a result we saw a revolution in thought and an industrial revolution incomparable to anything the world had ever experienced. In fact, even with the advent of the internet, the world has still never progressed quite as dramatically as it did during this laissez faire revolution.

And while this period brought the world the wisdom of Adam Smith and the rebellion of the American Revolution, it did not maintain its momentum of popularity as the 20th century approached.

As Hayek points out:

“We still believe that until quite recently we were governed by what are vaguely called nineteenth-century ideas or the principle of laissez faire…But although until 1931 England and America had followed only slowly on the path which others had led, even by then they had moved so far that only those whose memory goes back to the years before the last war know what a liberal world has been like.”

If in 1944, Hayek thought the world had already forsaken and forgotten true liberalism, I can scarcely imagine what he might say today. And it’s true that he was writing about a period of wartime economic planning both in the US and the UK. Prices and wages were controlled. Censorship was in place. Rationing and quotas governed the production and distribution of all essential goods and services. But even given all this, government consumed a far smaller degree of overall national production than today.

So far removed are we in 2017, that the individual is not even a consideration when contemplating economic policy. In fact, the “greedy” “selfish” individual is often the villain in modern economics, as he seems to always operate contrary to the whims of the collective. Now, terms like “individual mandates” are used to convey each person’s “social responsibility” to care for the collective.

As common as this anti-individualist sentiment has become, it wasn’t always this way. As Hayek reminds us in this opening chapter, the most tremendous strides towards human and economic progress were taken during a time when the individual was allowed to innovate and create without worrying about interference from the state on the grounds of protecting the greater good. But even though the positive implications of a pro-individualist society were proven by the innovations created during that time, society had still been steadily moving away from it.

“We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely of Cobden and Bright, of Adam Smith and Hume, or even of Locke and Milton, but one of salient characteristics of Western civilizations…Not merely the nineteenth- and eighteenth- century liberalism, but the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides, is progressively relinquished.”

So far removed are we in 2017, that the individual is not even a consideration when contemplating economic policy.

Again, I have to wonder what Hayek might say if he were alive today and around to see how groupthink and collectivism have shaped our modern policies.

This chapter, then, sets the stage. He names liberalism as the system that gave birth to the greatest of human achievements ever seen in history. It was individualism that caused the most spectacular effect. If you understand that–and vast numbers today do not understand this–you are prepared to see how the abandonment of this system and idea leads to not only the unraveling of liberty but even what we call civilization.

So, yes, this book is a warning, not just against one party but all ideological positions that reject individualism for one or another version of the planning state.

Now onward to chapter two!

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