The most important element of individualism is that of the
. An individualist is fully convinced that there is no such thing as a neutral, unbiased implementation of government power. The more power a government is granted, the fewer liberties are provided to the individual. The only thing that stands between tyranny and liberty is the
One of my postings on FA Hayek generated a thoughtful response.
What the comment was referring to was my article on Hayek’s perspective on what we risked abandoning when we pursue collectivist solutions, namely substituting the individual with the collective. The individual, with inherent rights, replaced with the State that would tell you what to think, the right things you need to say, and basically the career you will pursue. Economically, it meant replacing the free market with a planned, or directed, market.
Yet the comment above is instructive on how some words are difficult to use in conversation. “Individualism” can mean many things, so context is essential. It is interesting to see what comes up in search results when you enter the phrase “Individualism is about self absorption and narcissism.” The range of websites covers the entire gamut from liberty to narcissism, from how a focus on the individual can lend to mental health, yet destroy relationships. It is a term used in constructing our civil rights, yet it can also obstruct social responsibility.
What is Individualism?
Like any human philosophy, the concept of individualism can become all-consuming. I have seen it amongst the Christians as they form their own churches at a drop of a hat because something occurred that they did not approve of. It is interesting to see such devoted and sincere individuals discard any obligation to the larger community. On the political plane, it manifests itself in radical libertarianism and anarchism. I tend to move in libertarian circles and I have observed there are some who pursue individualism to such a strong degree that it defies how modern societies function.
But as noted above, context is everything. In my previous article on Hayek’s perception of our heritage, I noted at the end that modern history is a tension between the individual and the collective. It is not one thing or the other that is being advocated. It is a recognition that the rights of the individual are sacred, but those rights exist in the context of social responsibility. The tension is where do you draw the line between liberty (the individual) and the State (the collective).
While Wikipedia1 is not always the best resource, it captures the spirit of Individualism.
Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology and social outlook that emphasizes the intrinsic worth of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires and to value independence and self-reliance and advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group while opposing external interference upon one’s own interests by society or institutions such as the government. Individualism is often defined in contrast to totalitarianism, collectivism and more corporate social forms.2
Hayek’s use of the word pretty much conforms to what is stated above. When he referred to individualism, he was not advancing narcissism or unbridled greed. Those are personal, or psychological aspects of human nature. What he was referring to was the historical advancement of the individual. Another word that is often used in this discussion is “humanism.” Humanism advances the argument that human beings are intelligent, capable of reason. A human can observe the environment, ask questions, inquire, test and experiment. And a human being can do this best when unfettered by coercion, whether it be from the Catholic Church in Rome or from the State.
Hayek’s purpose for writing The Road to Serfdom was to expose the dangers of collectivism. He did not elaborate much on Individualism because a thorough discussion not only expands to Humanism, it also extends to “natural law.” Residing in each individual were innate, instinctive desires. Each individual could think, could reason, and thus see the need to speak and to write their thoughts. These rights were “inalienable”. Even though a king could punish an individual by taking away their rights, those inalienable qualities remained.
On the opposite side of the spectrum were philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century writer who would assert that while man could reason, it was debatable that people could be trusted to reason well. It would be Hobbes who would coin the concept that life for most people was brutal and short. He pointed out that almost every man had a natural desire for peace. Yet, in nature, man was always in conflict. A powerful monarch was one way to solve that problem. To this day, people will relinquish rights to gain protection and order.
Hayek and Collectivism
Hayek devotes a short chapter on the tension between individualism and collectivism. Fundamentally, he associates any level of central planning to collectivism. While that may seem obvious to some people, it is a reality that is often ignored by well-intended people. While Hayek focuses on national planning, I will use a more mundane and local example: planning and zoning. A local municipality chooses to use planning and zoning. In doing so, they have agreed that individual rights in regards to the use of property are directed through boundaries that determine what that individual can do with the property. For most of us, we can understand the reasoning behind this and, for the most part, planning and zoning commissions are composed of reasonable and honest people. It is collectivism as Henri Saint-Simon would have envisioned it, where reasonable people can guide society.
Yet it extends further. If a parcel of land is zoned as “residential single-family home”, it entails further restrictions. In some communities, it literally means “family”. Single people cannot reside in such a house. In some communities, homes must be owner-occupied. In most communities, only certain businesses are permitted to work from the home. Some communities can restrict flags. Others specify the type of lawn you must maintain, or the cars you park in the driveway. As you can see from this list, it is rather amazing how we voluntarily restrict ourselves through the democratic process. All to facilitate “planning.” All these restrictions protect us from the random acts of individuals.
The solution, in the US, is to simply move to a community where those restrictions do not abide. That has frequently been the case in the area I once resided in Boone County, Missouri. Boone County had planning and zoning and the largest city in the county, Columbia, had expanded on the planning and zoning concept to incorporate additional restrictions on home occupations and even barring mother-in-law apartments in single-family residences. People who thought that confining would move to the countryside, where the county commission was a bit more flexible on such matters. But some folks moved outside the county where there was no planning and zoning. They would tout that here the individual is free to use his land as he desires.
That is until the parcel of farmland next to your home is purchased by an industrial-level pig farm. The quiet pasture where a dozen cattle once roamed is soon replaced by several barns with 20,000 hogs being raised from piglet to bacon. Better yet, the manure processing ponds are slightly uphill from your home. You discover they can do this because there is no planning and zoning that designates how the land is to be used. You have few options.
In a nutshell, that is the tension between individualism and collectivism. The very right you once championed where the individual should be free to use his property as he so pleases, is the very same right that your neighbor will utilize to essentially destroy your life.
Another example of the collective versus the individual is the placement of garbage landfills. The “collective” must have a dump. The site they choose will significantly alter the welfare and future of the individuals that own the lands adjoining the dump. It is literally the NIMBY conundrum. I have heard the most good-hearted, liberally-minded people put up a brutal fight to prevent a half-way house for recovering alcoholics from being established in their neighborhood.
Suffice it to say, no society is perfect.
Hayek would admit that boundaries were inevitable, if not necessary, for any functioning society.3 As economists, we expand on this principle by introducing “public goods” and “public costs.” There are assets that simply cannot well be provided through individuals, such as a public park. There are services that are not pragmatically applied through a marketplace, like the streets we drive upon. And there are costs that individuals can generate that are not paid by that individual, but by the public at large. It is the extension of the concept of “public costs” that is so controversial today, justifying a sinister trend toward State control of much of our commerce.
Water and air pollution are one example. On the surface, this makes sense. Individuals, albeit as businesses, polluted public assets such as water and air. It left policymakers with the problem of how to 1) assess those costs and 2) determine how to recover the costs. For the US, it was the gradual introduction of laws and regulations which administered fines and provided pathways for restricting pollution. In the area of civil law, the costs were appraised and the polluters were required to ante-up the money. It is through these type of mechanisms that the collective can force the individual to be socially responsible.
While we can see that making sense for cleaning up rivers and streams, what about the guy who dumps his trash in a ravine on his own property out in the country? Is he the equivalent of Monsanto or Dow Chemical? Yet you get my point – the extent to which we apply these principles can eventually leave no breathing space to the individual.
While Hayek would champion the individual and the free market, he would recognize the need for boundaries. “An effective competitive system needs an intelligently designed and continuously adjusted legal framework … “4
Individualism is not anarchy.
While the examples above can relate to localities or specific industries, nations have and will continue to be tempted by the siren call of collectivism. In this case, the process is deliberate and intentional to redirect an economic dynamic once the reserve of individualism, with the planning directives of collectivism. This is what I would call systemic collectivism. It is pervasive, encompassing most, if not all, economic and social activity, where the individual has no alternatives. As Hayek would state, “The question was no longer one of making competition work and of supplementing it but of displacing it altogether.”5
Hayek is quite insightful in pointing out that collectivism, as has been practiced in history, is typically manifested in hybrid economies, where the State does not own the means of production but simply directs it. This was the genius of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in that they advanced collectivist goals by co-opting corporations, labor unions and other professional organizations. Today, much of Western society is affected by this process. At some point, a marketplace that was once free, is co- opted by the State. We see this particularly in medical care and in the climate agenda.
What this does is place the consumer at the mercy of monopoly power. “By destroying competition in industry after industry, this policy puts the consumer at the mercy of the joint monopolist action of capitalists and workers in the best organized industries.”6
Monopoly power emerges through the simple logic employed by Marxist ideology. Marxists divide society into groups and classes. It becomes your assigned identity. The individual fades away, absorbed into the group. The State controls the individual by controlling the group.
Systemic collectivism is filled with endless tensions, so much so that classical Marxism is rarely practiced. Classical Marxism is completely unrealistic. But it does not detract socialists from trying. Two countries have provided examples of what Hayek would prophetically declare the “middle way:”7 Russia and China. In each instance, these dictatorships have vaulted into prosperity by adopting capitalist tools. Small businesses emerge. Large corporations evolve. Private wealth accumulates. The standard of living improves dramatically. Yet these countries are to this day garnered by collectivist power. For Russia, it is a ridiculous throwback to oligarchy more akin to the Mafia than to capitalism. But China continues to champion a form of Communism that declares itself the vanguard of the people, the elite that Saint-Simon once advocated.
HG Wells and Hayek
While researching Hayek’s views on Individualism, I came across his opinion of HG Wells. I have read several of HG Wells’ science fiction novels and I was well aware of his socialist bent. Wells garnered Hayek’s attention from Wells’ contribution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in December 1948. As Hayek would note, 8 Wells represented the duplicity, or double-speak, of collectivist thinking. On the one hand, individual rights are advanced but only under the consideration of the “common welfare.” People are free to work where they please as long as positions are “open” to them. Missing in the conversation is an actual declaration that clearly states the rights of the individual – unconditionally.
I thought it peculiar that Hayek would be sidetracked by Wells’ statement. But it was to point out the key differences between Individualism as a governing philosophy, and “rights” determined by collective societies. For individualists, rights are inalienable. For collectivists, rights are granted.
Hayek would prophetically predict the advent of the cancel culture.
In this respect much more consistency is shown by the more numerous reformers who, ever since the beginning of the socialist movement, have attacked the ‘metaphysical’ idea of individual rights and insisted that in a rationally ordered world there will be no individual rights but only individual duties. This, indeed, has become the much more common attitude of our so-called ‘progressives,’ and few things are more certain to expose one to the reproach of being a reactionary than if one protests against a measure on the grounds that it is a violation of the rights of the individual.9
So Are You An Individualist?
I alluded to HG Wells for a reason. It is a subtle thing. We all believe we have “rights.” Yet we need to be clear what we mean by “rights.”
You are an individualist if you believe rights are inalienable. They are not granted. They are a part of our nature. The individual should be free to speak what they think, which implies they are free to think. In thinking, it assumes that human beings can reason. They should be free to write and create.
These rights are the boundaries of government. It is these rights that grant to government the powers it can possess. Not vice versa.
You are an individualist if you approach social, political and economic problems beginning with the individual, rather than society at large. People subconsciously expose their bias whenever they talk about society’s problems. Their first thought is that government needs to solve it. An individualist would first consider the government stepping out of the way.
You are an individualist if you believe that the State should not be involved in owning or controlling commerce. Individualism and capitalism go hand in hand. The individual should be free to choose where to work, what to buy, and where to live.
You are an individualist if your first instinctive preference is toward the private sector rather than the government.
Individualism can also be explained by what it is not.
- It is not anarchism.
- The individual is not anti-social.
As with socialism, individualism needs to be appraised not as an absolute, but as part of a continuum. Individualism and collectivism will always exist side-by-side, an ongoing tension. The key lesson from this discussion is that an individualist is aware. An individualist can sense when governments or any other organization are seeking to control their freedom.
The most important element of individualism is that of the empowered individual. An individualist is fully convinced that there is no such thing as a neutral, unbiased implementation of government power. The more power a government is granted, the fewer liberties are provided to the individual. The only thing that stands between tyranny and liberty is the empowered individual.
1Derived from a posting in September 2022.
2As derived from Wikipedia in October 9, 2022
3The Road to Serfdom, FA Hayek, University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 86
5Hayek, p. 88
6Hayek, p. 89
7Hayek, p. 89
8Hayek, p. 121