No, Society Does Not Need Unity

A fundamental historical and economic fallacy is back in a big way. The claim is that society needs homogeneity to be orderly, just, and free. It is a core claim of the alt-right and its sympathizers, and, in a different way, of the left too. It’s too easy to dismiss this claim as a political tactic. What’s at issue is the structure of society itself.

Conformism is the watchword. Everyone is in the mood to cast out the dissenters, drive out the other, coerce our way toward unity, in the name of creating “high trust” or “social justice,” depending on your ideological orientation. The absence of unity is what leads the right to reject freedom as a path forward and embrace state control of demographics, and the left to condemn “hate” speech and un-PC utterances as a threat to decency and equality on earth.

This longing for some kind of unity is not only completely wrong; it is highly dangerous. If you have ever been confronted with this claim, I’m writing this article for you.

Freedom and Diversity

Here’s an anecdote from my past. Before his death, the now-famous “social nationalist” writer and theorist, and self-proclaimed fascist, Samuel Francis and I were talking at some luncheon. I was prattling on about liberty as usual. And he interrupted me and said (paraphrasing): “Human rights and liberty are slogans we use. Much more fundamental is demographics. You have to have homogeneity for society to be orderly and operate properly. Without that, you can forget about rights and liberties.”

I said nothing because I hadn’t really thought much about that. Was this right? I didn’t hear such claims in college. People who talk like this are politically incorrect. This thinking leads to forbidden thoughts and tends toward the celebration of civic sins like racism, sexism, and xenophobia. So I had never really come to terms with it. I hadn’t had to. But that also meant that I was caught off guard, intellectually unprepared to refute him or even know if it needed to be refuted.

And now we see the left saying basically the same thing as Francis said but with a different application. We need to have unity of values. There are words you must not say, thoughts you must not think, people you must not caricature, things you must believe and not believe, jokes you must not tell, and, implausibly, you must never ever appropriate someone else’s culture because that would be like stealing (though every other form of stealing should be public policy). If a major writer or media commentator slips up slightly, the Twitter mob pounces hard and bombards the person with expressions of disgust. If they make enough noise, they can sometimes get the offending party fired for failing to conform.

Here is a counterclaim. Liberty and justice are not the outgrowth of homogeneity. Liberty is the solution to a seeming problem of heterogeneity, while justice is merely the realization of equal freedom. Liberty creates institutions like commercial settings, opportunities for trade and exchange, and settings for mutually beneficial trade and learning. It is precisely how liberty reconciles differences among people and creates wealth out of disagreement. That is the very source of its great magic.

This is not just my claim. It is literally the first great discovery of modernity and the core reason for the development of the liberal tradition. That society in all its inevitable and intractable diversity contains within itself the capacity for self-management is the foundational claim of freedom and the single most persistent theme of the liberal tradition. That both left and right have abandoned it is not a surprise. It is, however, disappointing that such a foundational point would be so forgotten.

Religious Toleration

Think back to the end of the religious wars. Enlightenment thinkers proposed that the solution to religious difference is not the burning of heretics and the imposition of an official creed. It was to allow people to believe whatever they wanted so long as they didn’t hurt others. The system worked.

How many other ways would this idea of freedom work? Gradually, it came to be rolled out to affect speech, the press, and trade. Eventually it led to broad emancipation of slaves, and women, and everyone else. It created a new world, in which the power of the state was restrained and contained, and dismantled the old world of imposed hierarchy. The watchwords were tolerance and diversity. The rights that came to be enunciated were the right to own, associate, trade, and create.

But it took centuries to come to pass. Even following the Industrial Revolution, controversies over how much toleration society should exercise roiled European politics.

In 1790, Charles James Fox, the paragon of early 18th-century English liberalism, rose in Parliament to defend the rights of religious minorities. He referenced England’s long history of burning heretics for daring to dissent from the existing religious opinion of the Crown, whatever the opinion happened to be. When he spoke, the Catholic Church was suppressed by law. He rose to speak in defense of the right of conscience:

We should perceive no vice, evil, or detriment, had ever sprung from toleration. Persecution had always been a fertile source of much evil; perfidy, cruelty, and murder, had often been the consequence of intolerant principles…. It proceeded entirely on this grand fundamental error, that one man could better judge of the religious opinion of another than the man himself could. Upon this absurd principle, persecution might be consistent; but in this it resembled madness: the characteristic of which was acting consistently upon wrong principles….Torture and death had been the auxiliaries of persecution; the grand engines used in support of one particular system of religious opinion, to the extermination of every other.

Eventually, his views won out. Even today, Fox’s speech — which set the standard for liberal opinion — stands out as a great tribute to the great truth that society does not require unity even on such an important topic as religion. His point applies across the board, not only to religion but also to race, language, class, creed, and every other margin along which people want to slice and dice the human community.

From Fox to Mises

Gradually, over the following century and a half, and especially following the brutality of regimes that practice identity politics of the left and right, the principle came into clearer focus. In 1927, Ludwig von Mises summarized it as follows:

Liberalism demands tolerance as a matter of principle, not from opportunism. It demands toleration even of obviously nonsensical teachings, absurd forms of heterodoxy, and childishly silly superstitions. It demands toleration for doctrines and opinions that it deems detrimental and ruinous to society and even for movements that it indefatigably combats. For what impels liberalism to demand and accord toleration is not consideration for the content of the doctrine to be tolerated, but the knowledge that only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and penury of centuries long past.

In his postwar writing from 1957, he broadened the insight. Toleration is the essence of the liberal spirit because it is right and it works:

Those whom we may call the harmonists base their argument on Ricardo's law of association and on Malthus' principle of population. They do not, as some of their critics believe, assume that all men are biologically equal. They take fully into account the fact that there are innate biological differences among various groups of men as well as among individuals belonging to the same group. Ricardo's law has shown that cooperation under the principle of the division of labor is favorable to all participants. It is an advantage for every man to cooperate with other men, even if these others are in every respect — mental and bodily capacities and skills, diligence and moral worth — inferior.

Further:

In the philosophy of the antiharmonists, the various schools of nationalism and racism, two different lines of reasoning must be distinguished. One is the doctrine of the irreconcilable antagonism prevailing among various groups, such as nations or races…. The second dogma of the nationalist and racist philosophies is considered by its supporters a logical conclusion derived from their first dogma. As they see it, human conditions involve forever irreconcilable conflicts, first among the various groups fighting one another, later, after the final victory of the master group, between the latter and the enslaved rest of mankind. Hence this supreme elite group must always be ready to fight, first to crush the rival groups, then to quell rebellions of the slaves. The state of perpetual preparedness for war enjoins upon it the necessity of organizing society after the pattern of an army.

Mill and Eccentricity

Liberalism has long distinguished itself for being the champion of difference — and the right of individuals to be different. John Stuart Mill said that it is the eccentric, not the conformist, who moves society forward:

In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

You don’t have to know this history of thought or the liberal theory as articulated by Fox, Mises, and Mill. Visit the bustling commercial district of any major American city and observe the crazy quilt of ethnicity, language, religion, race, and culture, where people are around buying, selling, and associating according to their own lights. Why is there not chaos? Why is there coexistence? Because the presence of commercial freedom allows everyone to pursue his or her own self-interest in a way that also benefits others.

Here is the beauty of the invisible hand at work.

The claim that liberty is preconditioned on the sameness of the population is to wish away the very problem that liberty is much adept at solving. After all, what is the problem that social thinkers are trying to solve? They seek to provide a setting in which people thrive as individuals even as the entire group is granted an opportunity for a better life. Differences among people are solved by freedom. This was an insight that changed the world for the better.

In fact, if you have a small tribe of the same race, language, religion, and cultural norms, the question of liberty does not have to be raised at all. Group coordination happens because of personal knowledge, verbal communication, and shared expectations of others’ similar needs, and it usually features a single leader. The trouble is that a homogeneous and isolated tribal unit managed from the top will always be poor — mostly living hand to mouth, as small tribes in the Amazon do today — because the tribal model doesn’t permit the expansion of the division of labor. It can work under some rarified conditions. But for the most part, life under imposed homogeneity eventually defaults to what Thomas Hobbes said of the state of nature: nasty, brutish, and short.

The Drive to Integrate

Liberty, on the other hand, rewards ever more integration of people of all kinds. It becomes profitable for everyone to do so. You are free to feel bigotry, racism, and loathing of all other religious views, different lifestyles, and so on. But when it comes to improving your life, you prefer dealing with the Jewish doctor to having a heart attack, grabbing lunch at the Moroccan restaurant, hiring the Mexican immigrant to tile your bathroom, listening to your favorite African American pop band, and so on. And guess what? Gradually under these conditions, the primitive and tribalist ethos begins to subside.

This is precisely why any regime that seeks to enforce homogeneity must necessarily turn against the market and toward force. Recall that the Nazi Party at first only encouraged peaceful boycotts of Jewish businesses, protest signs in front of stores, and so on, and laid out explicit instructions that no one be hurt. That didn’t work. The Nuremberg Laws were desperate measures to address the “problem” that the market wouldn’t work to exclude people.

There is another insight that makes the whole claim about homogeneity a bit silly. As it turns out, no one is the same. And you know this. Think of a friend who shares your religion, race, language, and sex, but has different values. There is always the possibility for conflict because no two people are alike. Your friendships survive despite this because you value your friendships more than being enemies. Expand that model to the whole of the social order and you begin to understand how and why differences lead not to conflict, disorder, and acrimony but rather to friendship, prosperity, and enlightenment.

All this talk of doing away with diversity is a shibboleth. There is no pure race, no truly orthodox religion, no one language without variation, no final unity between any two people in thought, word, or deed. No one acts or thinks as a group or collective. There is no collective credit and no collective guilt. The social world will be, always and forever, a constellation of difference. We need the best possible social system for dealing with and making something beautiful come of it. Seeking unity would now achieve what it always has achieved: destruction and the enslavement or removal of some people and the emergence of a despotic class of rulers selected from among the winners of the great struggle.

The New Realization

To understand the awesome power of heterogeneity is to adopt a different outlook on society itself. It is to embrace the core liberal claim: society doesn’t need top-down management, because it contains within itself the capacity for its own management. You come to be enraptured by Frédéric Bastiat’s emphasis on harmony as the means by which we live better lives.

In contrast, the mental posture that homogeneity is a necessary condition leads to a series of strange obsessions over unending conflicts in society. You begin to exaggerate them in your mind. It seems like you are surrounded by a plethora of intractable wars. There is a war between blacks and whites, men and women, gays and straights, Christianity and Islam, the abled and disabled, our nation and their nation, and so on. This is the very mindset that the left and right have in common.

And guess what? If you build a large state, these conflicts do indeed appear to be more real than they are, simply because the state pits people against each other. You begin to hate that group because its members didn’t vote for your candidate, it gets more of the tax loot, it favors various forms of imposition on your liberty. Thanks to this interventionist state, you feel as if you are surrounded by enemies and lose track of the possibility for human understanding.

Freedom and Difference

Let’s return to the original claim by Mr. Francis, now widely shared and promoted by the alt-right and its sympathizers. It turns out that this is nothing new. The opponents of liberty have been barking up this tree for some 200 years, just as the left has done since Marx first fused Hegel with materialist socialist theory. While these people think in terms of homogeneous collectives, liberalism advanced the idea of individual rights and the capacity of people to organize themselves despite diversity, learning to gain value from each other through trade.

“You have to have homogeneity for society to be orderly and operate properly,” Francis said. This claim amounts to a rejection of liberalism itself. So let’s correct this. You have to have liberty to deal with the inescapable reality of heterogeneity. It’s the longing for sameness that leads to conflict, despotism, and impoverished human lives.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn