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The Strange Death of the Liberal Individual

Only a comprehensive reconfiguration of property rights over the increasingly cloud-based instruments of production, distribution, collaboration, and communication can rescue the foundational liberal idea of liberty as self-ownership. Reviving the liberal individual thus requires precisely what liberals detest: a revolution.

ATHENS – My father was the epitome of the liberal individual, a splendid irony for a lifelong Marxist. To make a living, he had to lease his labor to the boss of a steel plant in Eleusis. But during every lunch break he wandered blissfully in the open-air backyard of the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, where he luxuriated in the discovery of ancient steles full of clues that antiquity’s technologists were more advanced than previously thought.

Following his return home, at just after 5 p.m. every day, and a late siesta, he would emerge ready to share in our family life and to write up his findings in academic articles and books. His life at the factory was, in short, neatly separated from his personal life.

It reflected a time when even leftists like us thought that, if nothing else, capitalism had granted us sovereignty over ourselves, albeit within limits. However hard one worked for the boss, one could at least fence off a portion of one’s life and, within that fence, remain autonomous, self-determining, free. We knew that only the rich were truly free to choose, that the poor were mostly free to lose, and that the worst slavery was that of anyone who had learned to love their chains. Still, we appreciated the limited self-ownership we had.