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Three Books About Being An Individual

I recently read, in fairly quick succession, three books that deal with the importance of being your own person. They  are How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World by Harry Browne, Letters To A Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens, and Anthem by Ayn Rand. I would recommend any of these three, but I would recommend all three even more strongly. Each of them enhances the good points and corrects the  errors of the other two.

Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World helps to overcome the wrong ideas that keep many from being as free as they could be. He refers to all these wrong ideas as "traps". Many of these traps are quite pervasive. Two of them are  the "intellectual trap" and the "emotional trap" which are equal and opposite emotions regarding reason and emotion. The intellectual trap is the wrong belief that your emotions should be what your intellect tells you they are. Knowing this is a wrong belief is extraordinary liberating. I know I've spent a lot of energy in my life castigating myself for emotions I felt were irrational or even unjust. Realizing that are neither good good nor bad but just are is quite helpful.

Of course, emotions frequently should not be acted upon. The emotional trap is the belief that you always should. I'm grateful to Browne for clarifying things about emotions. I get into a lot of debates about whether or not emotions are chosen. I always insist they are not, and I  the people who say they are seem to really mean you choose to act on them a certain way. By identifying the intellectual and emotional traps, Browne makes clear that these are two different things.

Browne discusses 14 traps in all. A brief outline of them can be found in this article at lewrockwell.com by Johnny Kramer. I am in agreement with most of what Browne says about these traps,but there are a few exceptions. He's at his weakest when he discusses  the rights trap. This is the wrong belief that asserting your rights is sufficient to keep you free. If Browne had merely stated that this was  a wrong belief, I would have no problem. But he seems to have a problem between distinguishing between rights properly defined and positive rights

He says "If someone tells you by not stealing you're 'recognizing property rights', you might also react to someone's claim of a 'right to a decent living as if you context were similar-- and you might think you have a duty to satisfy that right".

But you don't need any concept of the rights trap to avoid that error. All you have to do is recognize that one thing (property rights) is a genuine right, and the other is a positive right, which Browne should understand is not a right at all.

But the sound advice in Browne's book far outweights the errors. It's worth a read, maybe a repeated read.

Christopher Hitchens' Letters To A Young Contrarian is a must-read for anyone who wants to be a truly independent thinker. It is the first of a series from Basic Books  patterned after Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet.  The letters are composites of actual letters he had written to young dissidents.

There is no better teacher of independent thinking than Christopher Hitchens. No matter who you are, he will have at least one opinion that will offend you (as this Amazon review of Hitch-22 illustrates beautifully.) While he could fairly be described as a leftist, he could not be described as a member of the leftist tribe. Or any tribe. He has historically departed from the left when he disagrees with this weeks leftist dogma (the Clinton impeachment and the Iraq War are too good examples.)

An anecdote in his book illustrates his refusal to be part of any camp quite well. During the 60's he was involved in efforts to help young people evade the draft. He discovered that Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, free-market economists whom he would normally thought of as enemies, were working to help end the draft from within. In his words, "while I and others were battling in the streets with the red flag...the apostles of the free market were pressing our demands in the inner sanctum." In other words, principle trumps pride.

And on the matter of principle, Hitchens is far more satisfactory than Browne. In particular, he addresses the issue of conscience. He writes of Adam Smiths notion that "we carry around an unseen witness to our thoughts and doings, and seek to make a good impression on this worthy bystander" and laments that  "even if [conscience] is presumptively latent in all of us it very often remains just that--latent."

Hitchens conscience might send him in different directions than mine would, but I am still grateful he addresses the matter. Browne in his book wrote a good deal about the importance of seeking our own happiness, and I agree with that. But he neglects the importance of a good opinion of ourselves (or a good conscience) in achieving happiness. Browne never explicitly rules this out, but Hitchens does him one better by explicitly stating its importance.

Finally, Ayn Rand's Anthem is a novel about the importance of recognizing the individual.Unlike her other novels, it is written in the style of a fable. It's set in a dystopian future where the notion of individuality has been banished. The narrator even refers to himself as "we" since the word "I" has been stricken from the language. It illustrates what can happen to society if we forget that society can't exist without its  individual members. It's nowhere near as ambitious as Rand's other novels, but fables generally are not ambitious. They  are written to illustrate  one point (or moral) and the importance of the individual is one that is certainly worth addressing.