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On the freedom to be wrong
“The point which is so important is the basic fact that it is impossible for any man to survey more than a limited field, to be aware of the urgency of more than a limited number of needs. Whether his interests center round his own physical needs, or whether he takes a warm interest in the welfare of every human being he knows, the ends about which he can be concerned will always be only an infinitesimal fraction of the needs of all men. This is the fundamental fact on which the whole philosophy of individualism is based. It does not assume, as is often asserted, that man is egoistic or selfish or ought to be. It merely starts from the indisputable fact that the limits of our powers of imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values more than a sector of the needs of the whole society, and that, since, strictly speaking, scales of value can exist only in individual minds, nothing but partial scales of values exist—scales which are inevitably different and often inconsistent with each other. From this the individualist concludes that the individuals should be allowed, within defined limits, to follow their own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s; that within these spheres the individual’s system of ends should be supreme and not subject to any dictation by others. It is this recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position.”1
– Friedrich August von Hayek
It is primarily the recognition of one’s ignorance and the equal respect accorded to each carrier of life that informs the individualist position. Why the carrier of life? Because it is the individual living human being that suffers not institutions or governments.
The demand that what is considered at any given point in time the truth should rule absolutely over and above the personal decisions of men, left unchecked, is the seed that can lead governments to curtail the liberty of those they consider ignorant. The understanding that liberty entails the liberty to make one’s own mistakes is the quintessential ingredient of a free society. This is what motivated Vauvenargues to aptly remark that we should be careful to allow our fellow men to make even great mistakes against themselves to avoid the greatest of them all: their enslavement to our own judgment2.
The extent of the consequences of one’s activity cannot easily be foreseen by any solitary individual. It is because the individual recognizes the limits of his own understanding and knowledge that he turns to his fellows to discuss in public the possible consequences of a course of action. The outcome of this discussion, will determine that at least he will not suffer alone, and his fellow citizens, in having consulted and assisted in the reaching of the decision, will have assumed a measure of responsibility and therefore an obligation to care for a possible harmful outcome of their own communal ignorance while a vindication of communal deliberation would be rejoiced, not just by the individualist who originally proposed it, but by the whole community.
The acknowledgment of one’s own ignorance leads to the awareness of one’s own weakness. The awareness of one’s own weakness leads to the reaching out to one’s fellow men for assistance. The reaching out to one’s fellow men for assistance brings about the realization that we need each other and that often a solitary life is not just an idle lifestyle choice, but a bad choice, as it leads to a life impoverished of the judgment and company of our fellow humans. The best life presupposes others. For on our own we are overall more fallible, while together, under certain conditions, less. Assisted by our fellow men we can still fail; but when we fail together, there is a hand to hold, and when we succeed, another to embrace.