Southern History Series: George Fitzhugh Attacks Liberalism

The following excerpt comes from George Fitzhugh’s book, Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society (1854):

“In free society none but the selfish virtues are in repute, because none other help a man in the race of competition. In such society virtue loses all her loveliness, because of her selfish aims. Good men and bad men have the same end in view: self-promotion, self-elevation. The good man is prudent, cautious, and cunning of fence; he knows well, the arts (the virtues, if you please) which enable him to advance his fortunes at the expense of those with whom he deals; he does not “cut too deep;” he does not cheat and swindle, he only makes good bargains and excellent profits. He gets more subjects by this course; everybody comes to him to be bled. He bides his time; takes advantage of the follies, the improvidence and vices of others, and makes his fortune out of the follies and weaknesses of his fellow-men. The bad man is rash, hasty, unskillful and impolitic. He is equally selfish, but not half so prudent and cunning. Selfishness is almost the only motive of human conduct in free society, where every man is taught that it is his first duty to change and better his pecuniary situation.”

According to George Fitzhugh, Ayn Rand’s the “virtue of selfishness” is the animating principle of liberal capitalist free societies. The strong prey upon the weak and human happiness is closely identified with and measured in terms of material gain. The whole social order is given over to the capitalist’s pursuit of immediate individual self interest at the expense of future generations.

“The first principles of the science of political economy inculcate separate, individual action, and are calculated to prevent that association of labor without which nothing great can be achieved; for man isolated and individualized is the most helpless of animals. We think this error of the economists proceeded from their adopting Locke’s theory of the social contract. We believe no heresy in moral science has been more pregnant of mischief than this theory of Locke. It lies at the bottom of all moral speculations, and if false, must infect with falsehood all theories built on it. Some animals are by nature gregarious and associative. Of this class are men, ants and bees. An isolated man is almost as helpless and ridiculous as a bee setting up for himself. Man is born a member of society, and does not form society. Nature, as in the cases of bees and ants, has it ready formed for him. He and society are congenital. Society is the being – he one of the members of that being. He has no rights whatever, as opposed to the interests of society; and that society may very properly make any use of him that will redound to the public good. Whatever rights he has are subordinate to the good of the whole; and he has never ceded rights to it, for he was born its slave, and had no rights to cede.”

Fitzhugh agrees with Aristotle that humans are naturally social and tribal beings, not rugged individualists, and that “an isolated man is almost as helpless and ridiculous as a bee setting up for himself.” Far from leaving the “State of Nature” to create society in “social contracts,” humans are born into societies like a bee is born into the hive and we absorb language and culture from our parents.

We’re also born into nations which we inherit as a trust that have been built up over the course of centuries by our ancestors. Thus, whatever rights the individual has should be subordinated to the good of the whole collective, as those rights are derived from society anyway.

“Government is the creature of society, and may be said to derive its powers from the consent of the governed; but society does not owe its sovereign power to the separate consent, volition or agreement of its members. Like the hive, it is as much the work of nature as the individuals who compose it. Consequences; the very opposite of the doctrine of free trade, result from this doctrine of ours. It makes each society a band of brothers, working for the common good, instead of a bag of cats biting and worrying each other. The competitive system is a system of antagonism and war; ours of peace and fraternity. The first is the system of free society; the other that of slave society. The Greek, the Roman, Judaistic, Egyptian, and all ancient polities, were founded on our theory. The loftiest patrician in those days, valued himself not on selfish, cold individuality, but on being the most devoted servant of society and his country. In ancient times, the individual was considered nothing, the State every thing. And yet, under this system, the noblest individuality was evolved that the world has ever seen.”

Fitzhugh notes that the Roman patrician saw himself as the “most devoted servant of society and his country.” This was an attitude toward society that Southerners had absorbed from the classics and which was grounded in slavery. In contrast, the selfish modern Yankee individualist pursuing his material self-interest believes that he is entirely self made and owes nothing to anyone.

Note: George Fitzhugh has a biographical entry in The Encyclopedia of Virginia.

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