I recently finished rereading F.A. Hayek’s essay “Individualism: True and False”. In a past post I laid out my own political principles, and the first one I mentioned was individualism. This is a fundamental, and also a much misunderstood concept. In this post I want to use some of Hayek’s concepts (amongst others) to explain both what individualism is, and make an argument for it. One could write a book on this, but it being a blog post, abbreviation will be necessary.
One can make a distinction between the positive argument, what individualism is, and the normative argument, individualism ought to be the reigning political philosophy. I shall seek to address both if space should permit (as it is I’m running long on introductory material), but I shall focus primarily on what individualism is, and shall introduce normative arguments as well throughout the piece.
The best way to start addressing individualism is to start off by asking what individualism is not, that way we can arrive at our answer deductively. Individualism is not the atomistic individual standing outside of society, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. This indeed is something of a straw man (although there are individualists who would be more than happy to make this argument). The chief error in this line of thinking can be found long ago in the observation of Aristotle, that man is a social animal. Humans are, by nature, creatures that dwell in communities and spend their lives amongst others (exluding the occasional hermit, which is largely considered abnormal by society). Through the use of genetics, scientists have been able to determine that there have never been fewer than a few thousand Homo sapiens at any one point in time. Thus, it’s woven into our very nature to live socially.
Individualism is fully comfortable living socially in community with others. This is why we form voluntary associations. Freedom leaves us to join with others in common causes whatever it may be. It recognizes that the very fact that we are social animals means that we have to learn to live together and respect each other beliefs and differences. Toleration and a healthy pluralism result from true individualism. It allows individuals to work together to find the best ways of making society work best, without relying on top-down solutions.
Nor is Individualism man as homo economicus, living a purely Rational life. Humans are not purely economic entities acting always as consumers. People value lots of different aspects in life, only a part of which can be assessed in terms of cash value. Neither is the individual solely driven by Reason. I use a capital “R” because there is a philosophy still ongoing that believes that purely through reason man can design society and the institutions within it anew. Individuals are very limited in what they can actually know. The idea that a single individual, or even a group on individuals, could centrally plan an economy, or engage in successful social engineering, or put entirely new institutions on a continent like Africa where they never existed before and one can’t know all the particulars is absurd. These constraints upon us introduce a problem where all this individual knowledge needs to be coordinated over a massive scale, but this is a problem for another essay, where I can introduce Hayek’s concept of knowledge and prices.
True individualism recognizes the limits of every person (including elected officials). Recognizing these constraints, allows us to acknowledge the truth that we don’t know who knows whats best, which is why individualism allows individuals on their own, and within voluntary associations, to experiment and contribute their limited pieces of knowledge to the whole. This introduces us to the uncertainty that results from these limitations and the freedom that we have as individuals. Because of this new ideas and innovations emerge that would otherwise not in a society that was planned out and collectivized.
Another aspect of Individualism recognized freedom of conscience, bequeathed to us by the Christian tradition, that each individual is responsible to God for their conscience. This brings with it a need for pluralism and religious toleration. Individuals have different thoughts and beliefs, goals and desires. Individualism is the best method for securing this, for if individuals are free, they are also free in their communities (or voluntary associations), whereas if communities take priority over the individual, then while the community may be free the individual is not (and I’m not actually sure it make sense to say that a community can be free).
Milton Friedman rightly said in his book Capitalism and Freedom that “a society is merely an agreggation of individuals.” Societies/civilizations are complex systems where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts. One of the principles of complex system is that they emerge from the “bottom-up.” I don’t think this negates Milton Friedman’s statement. Rather it reminds us that all the various institutions of society are a result of human action, not of human design. The actions of many individuals, on their own and together, has brought about all societies in their various forms. Thus, it can be said truthfully, that individualism is baked into society. When people have tried to design societies anew (such as the French and Russian revolutions), these projects have been met with disaster.