In this tightly argued book, Colin Bird picks a series of seemingly small interpretive fights in order to win one large theoretical battle. His primary target is twentieth-century libertarianism as defended by people like Hayek and Nozick, along with the liberalism of theorists like Berlin and Rawls. Although his juxtaposition of usually antithetical theorists in such close proximity is atypical and slightly disconcerting at first, it makes considerable sense once his larger endgame is unveiled. Rather than choosing a side in the now decades-old internecine struggle within liberal theory between the clan of Kant and the clan of Mill, as well as refusing the invitation to come and live in peace with the communitarians, Bird has instead attempted to pull out the mutual rug upon which he claims each of the combatants is standing. That “rug,” so to speak, is the foundational precept of liberalism—namely, individualism itself. His task, he claims, is to get us “to stop thinking of liberalism as a harmonious federation of moral ideals bound together under a constitution of individualism” and to start seeing it as “an unstable alliance of antagonistic principles and ideals” (3).
While the first two chapters set the historical and methodological stage well enough, in the third chapter the argument really gets rolling. There, Bird lays out the notions of public agency and conceptions of collectivity that will guide his later assault on the idea of a coherent and unified conception of individualism. Differentiating between aggregative and associative conceptions of collectivity and symmetrical and asymmetrical notions of public agency, Bird manages to insert the thin edge of his argumentative wedge into the sturdy trunk of individualism such that it becomes possible to talk about competing and ppositional accounts of individualism within liberal theory itself. Once this argument is fleshed out in the following chapters, both the liberal theorists and their communitarian critics who had depended on the unity and coherence of the individualist ideal are forced to reevaluate their own most crucial philosophical assumptions and the theoretical edifices derived from them.
The two largest dangers that liberal theorists want to guard citizens against, according to Bird, are the kinds of paternalism and optimization that they associate with various forms of collectivism and even totalitarianism itself. However, in close, though ahistorical, readings of Rousseau, Kant, and Mill, Bird ably demonstrates that the ability to avoid one often entails a failure to avoid the other. As he puts it, “the main thesis of this book...raises the possibility that liberal individualists cannot resist paternalism and optimization at the same time” (104). The result is an “individualist project” that is “not merely undesirable or callous, but conceptually incoherent” (104). While the argument is complicated, the conclusion itself is relatively simple, namely that neither Kant’s nor Mill’s approach manages to generate the necessary “inviolable private sphere” necessary sustain “the fully-fledged individualist ideal” (138) because it cannot simultaneously prevent the Kantian paternalism embodied in the notion of a duty to oneself, or the utilitarian optimization of Mill’s account.
In Chapter 5, Bird continues his deconstructive work through a rigorous and highly critical assault on the cherished libertarian ideal of self-ownership. Here he suggests that the libertarian dilemma results from the attempt to hold fast to both “individual inviolability” and “self-ownership” as if they were “simply two sides of a single coin” (140). Bird reveals this strategy as a flawed attempt on their part to partake of the defensively useful parts of Mill and Kant while ignoring the incommensurability that arises from the theoretical hybrid once the implications of both approaches are fully realized and acknowledged. Due to this “insurmountable” problem, libertarians must choose between “individual inviolability” and a “commitment to self-ownership” if they are interested in stabilizing their theoretical account. Unfortunately, such a choice prevents the larger libertarian project of avoiding both paternalism and optimization from being effectively realized. In other words, Bird demonstrates effectively that much of libertine theory cannot bear the weight of its desired practice due to its reliance on what he aptly calls the myth of individualism.
Bird’s work here is, at minimum, a persuasive first read. It represents an important critique of much of contemporary analytic political theory and should bring out respondents from the numerous intellectual camps at which he has flung his David-like stones. They are better suited than I am to challenge Bird’s provocative and seemingly original offering to the literature. My only real criticism is applicable to much of the work in this theoretical genre, namely its overly scholastic and occasionally convoluted style. I often found myself forced to reread sentences to glean their meaning as well as earlier sections of the essay just to keep in mind the definitions and terms he uses. The following sort of sentence is perhaps too typical for a work whose primary mission is clarification: “It may not be completely clear why the associative conception preserves the privilege of bilateral, agent-relative side-constraints that the asymmetrical aggregative conception undermines” (162). That sort of issue aside, however, the work here gives its careful readers plenty to think about and, more important, a new way to think about it.