Libertarian History/Philosophy

Individualism, Collectivism, and Other Murky Labels

Understanding the difference between true and false individualism

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Imagine the following person. He believes all individuals should be free to do anything that's peaceful and therefore favors private property, free global markets, freedom of contract, civil liberties, and all the related ideas that come under the label libertarianism (or liberalism). Obviously he is not a statist. But is he an individualist and a capitalist or a socialist and a collectivist?

It sounds like an easy question, but on closer inspection it's not. Much depends on the context, or the level of analysis at which the question is directed. An answer appropriate at the level of personal ethics may not be appropriate in a discussion of political economy. Take the word individualist. There are many senses in which the person described above could be called an individualist. If in his personal life he habitually and ultimately relies on himself to make decisions (although he seeks information and wisdom from others) and does not slavishly follow fashion, he could appropriately be called an individualist. He likewise is a methodological individualist if he believes that only individuals act and create; only individuals have intentions, values, and preferences. He understands that when a group acts, it's really just individuals acting in concert.

What about at the level of political economy? Is this person also an individualist in that context? Here the labels get murkier. He certainly is an individualist in the political-legal sense; that is, he favors a system in which individuals' titles to honestly acquired property are respected. Group ownership would have to be traceable to contracts among collections of individuals. (But for a libertarian theory of nonstate public property, see Roderick Long's "A Plea for Public Property" and the Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize-winning work on common pool resources.)

This seems to yield the conclusion that a libertarian is categorically an individualist. Not so fast. The term individualist, let's recall, was a pejorative aimed at people of the libertarian persuasion. It was meant to stigmatize them as anti-social. The adjectives rugged and atomistic were later added to drive home the point. In some minds, unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, who lived alone in a shack in the wilderness, was the quintessential individualist (except for the letter bombs). But libertarian philosophy is the furthest thing from anti-social. That would be a peculiar way indeed to describe a philosophy that embraces–with gusto!–the global division of labor and free trade across property, city, county, state, and national lines. (Yes, I left out planetary–for now.)

Collective Intelligence

There are other senses in which "individualist" is far off the mark and in which "socialist" and even "collectivist" are closer. The Austrian tradition in economics has long emphasized that the chief advantage of the market process over central decision-making lies in the market's embodiment of a social, or collective, intelligence that is denied to any individual or small subgroup. This doesn't mean that a collective mind literally emerges, only that the social process and the price system combine in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The market "knows" more than any of us do alone. (The same point can be made for a broader context. The philosopher Wittgenstein argued that language itself, without which there is little or no thought, is essentially social.)

Further, Ludwig von Mises often emphasized that in a freed market, consumers collectively, not individual business people, determine who owns the means of production and what will be produced. When you trace out the implications of this, things get interesting. Consumers constantly make this determination through their buying and abstention from buying, but the outcome is never the intended result of conscious decision-making. Business people may legally own their capital and capital goods, but if—in a genuinely competitive market—consumers don't like what those owners do with those assets, they face bankruptcy and loss of control. It is a social, or collective, process. As Mises wrote in Human Action,

The direction of all economic affairs is in the market society a task of entrepreneurs. Theirs is the control of production. They are at the helm and steer the ship. A superficial observer would believe that they are supreme. But they are not. They are bound to obey unconditionally the captain's orders. The captain is the consumer. Neither the entrepreneurs nor the farmers nor the capitalists determine what has to be produced. The consumers do that. If a businessman does not strictly obey the orders of the public as they are conveyed to him by the structure of market prices, he suffers losses, he goes bankrupt, and is thus removed from his eminent position at the helm. Other men who did better in satisfying the demand of the consumers replace him. [Emphasis added.]

Social Control

Isn't that social, or collective, control of the means of the production? Does that make libertarians socialists or collectivists? This fact about the market is worth passing along to our good-faith opponents who decry any system that does not allow the mass of people a say in matters than affect them. (See my "Market, State, and Autonomy.") The irony is that the free market accomplishes this, while state socialist systems do not. But it is necessary to stress that Mises's point applies fully only under laissez faire–meaning a free market without coerced privileges of any kind. Historically, government intervention in the market has aimed to shelter the privileged (owners of land and capital who benefited from political favoritism like patents, licensing, and land enclosure) from the demands of regular people–consumers and workers–the very ones whose voices are most effective in a truly free market. That is why the struggle for freedom has always been a struggle against privilege. (Libertarians who forget this espouse what free-market anti-capitalist Kevin Carson calls vulgar libertarianism, or faux "free market" analysis that consists of an apologetic for big business.)

In summary, the great political debate is not between individualists and collectivists, but between those who see the coercive State as the locus of authority and those who see voluntary society as that locus. Liberals from Adam Smith to Herbert Spencer to F.A. Hayek emphasized the benefits of free, spontaneous social (market) processes (including the common law) and how those processes are disrupted by the state. Advocates of the supremacy of state over society are properly called "statists." Wouldn't it follow that advocates of the supremacy of society over state should be called "socialists"? In this regard, I recall that the libertarian James Dale Davidson, founder of the National Taxpayers Union, long ago wrote a book (The Squeeze, as I remember) that called for a "socialization of rules." By that he meant that the rules and customs of everyday life should be generated, bottom-up, by society, not imposed, top down, by legislators.

Consistent Manchesterism

Be assured, I am not suggesting that libertarians start calling themselves socialists. I am saying that a reconsideration of labels can clarify understanding. Nevertheless, as a historical matter I think Mises was mistaken when he wrote, "The notion of socialism as conceived and defined by all socialists implies the absence of a market for factors of production and of prices of such factors." This can't be true because some earlier American advocates of laissez faire– that is, consistent Manchesterism–called themselves socialists for at time, most prominently, Benjamin R. Tucker, editor of Liberty magazine (1881-1908). In the view of Tucker and his allies (and earlier liberal thinkers like Spencer's mentor Thomas Hodgskin, capitalism meant government interference in the market (tariffs, the banking cartel, patents, and the land monopoly) on behalf of capital to the detriment of the rest of society. Their alternative was a completely free and competitive market void of privilege; only that system would restore to workers the just earnings taken through anticompetitive government intervention. In 1884 Tucker wrote:

Socialism [in his conception] says that what's one man's meat must no longer be another's poison; that no man shall be able to add to his riches except by labor; that in adding to his riches by labor alone no man makes another man poorer; that on the contrary every man thus adding to his riches makes every other man richer; that increase and concentration of wealth through labor tend to increase, cheapen, and vary production; that every increase of capital in the hands of the laborer tends, in the absence of legal monopoly, to put more products, better products, cheaper products, and a greater variety of products within the reach of every man who works; and that this fact means the physical, mental, and moral perfecting of mankind, and the realization of human fraternity. Is that not glorious? Shall a word that means all that be cast aside simply because some have tried to wed it with authority? (Socialism: What It Is)

When you include in the category labor what entrepreneurs do, Tucker's description of a free society is virtually indistinguishable from those offered by Frédéric Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, and Leonard Read.

Today socialism means only State, not social, control. But for many people here and abroad, capitalism means not laissez faire, but rather corporatism, or what the great libertarian Albert Jay Nock called the "Merchant-state." It behooves us to make sure our labels communicate clearly. Otherwise we will never bring the mass of people to the cause of liberty.

This article originally appeared at The Freeman.

NEXT: Gary Johnson's OK Week

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  1. First dammit

    1. Finally….whew. I thought I was just going to have to settle for best.

  2. I think we should we be called Somalian.

  3. “Today socialism means only State, not social, control. But for many people here and abroad, capitalism means not laissez faire, but rather corporatism…”

    Those that wish to limit liberty do constantly change the language that they use in argument to conceal their true ends. Those that want to end the rule of law do not call themselves tyrants, they call themselves ‘progressives’, because they want to be free from the shackles of the law and make some progress. Those that wish to enslave the individual’s will do not call themselves authoritarians, they call themselves ‘socialists’.

    In the end, liberty by any other name is still liberty. Slavery by any other name is still slavery. Theft by any other name….

  4. It is important to occasionally be pedantic and clarify the labels we use because we are shooting at a moving target. The statists are constantly obfuscating the definitions of those terms.

    See Tony and his argument that individuals are by nature not free, that our environment determines what we do, therefore we should abandon the notion of liberty altogether.

    1. Don’t forget Tony’s belief that individuals have no rights except those granted by the government.

  5. Sounds like a pretty good plan dude. Wow.

    http://www.IP-Anon.tk

    1. Anono-bot. You’re back. Where you been? On vacation?

  6. Yeah, no.

    INtellectual property protection through Patents is not the same as as State licencing or other state privlleges, at least in theory, no more than the state protecting you from a bad employer not paying for for contracted labor.

    An author writes a book, that is quitesentially his/her Labor, which they have a right to sell for profit , unless you believe that no one can own their own mind and all human ideas are collective.

    Also , Progressives do not wish to be free from the rule of law, they just want to make law respect and protect the collective. Free Marketeers want the law to protect the INdividual. Anarchists or Voluntarists wish to unshackle themselves from law in general.

    1. unless you believe that no one can own their own mind

      Actually, you have it exactly backwards. Patent law prevents me from owning the product of my own mind, just because someone else thought it first.

      If I own the products of my own mind and my own labor, then patents and copyrights must go away.

      1. Patent law prevents me from owning the product of my own mind, just because someone else thought it first.

        In the same sense that laws against theft prevent you from owning a product just because someone else bought it first.

        In cases where two people independently make the same discovery you have some grounds. In cases where, say, one man with a gifted mind conceives a brilliant new product and spends millions of dollars of his own capital developing it and bringing it to market just so that his first customer can replicate the product through simple reverse engineering having made no intellectual contribution of his own, and not having the burden of sinking millions of dollars of capital into development, undercutting him on price and driving him out of business by simply stealing something he could never have invented himself.

        If you own the products of your mind, people should have to enter into voluntary exchange with you in order to procure them the exact same way as they would with the products of your labor.

    2. Also , Progressives do not wish to be free from the rule of law, they just want to make law respect and protect the collective. Free Marketeers want the law to protect the INdividual.

      and who decides upon those laws protecting free marketeers? If you think about it, that conception of law driven by ‘free marketeers’ still ends up with the same collectivism problem you point out with progressives

      Anarchists or Voluntarists wish to unshackle themselves from law in general.

      Well, from positive law, yeah. Bastiat distinguished “The Law” from legislation, or what most people think of as law.

      That doesn’t mean there are no rules or no order. We live in a partly or relativistic anarchistic or voluntary society right now: there are different rules at different workplaces, different rules at different homes, at different properties–different systems of order. And while there is no true anarchism within a state, there exists real anarchy between states right now.

      Ultimately the only non-positive, non-legislative law there is, that’s universally true and can protect any individual, from free marketeers to collectives of any sort, comes from voluntarism itself

    3. “…they just want to make law respect and protect the collective.”

      Resistance is futile?

  7. I am saying that a reconsideration of labels can clarify understanding.

    Of course labels are useless once we start defining them for ourselves. People know the general idea of socialism – both those wishing to practice and those detractors – if not necessarily its likely effects. They gernally understand capitalism to mean a regulated free market to its various degrees, even if only to lament the regulation as either insufficient or too invasive.

    If you want to be more precise you can always define your terms at the open of a discussion or add qualifiers as you argue, but even libertarians certainly agree that common terminology is road to discussion worth building. This verily I say unto thee.

  8. The concept that the Market is social and therefore you can’t be an Individualist is absurd. Individualism isn’t hermitism, it’s not Ted Kozinsky. It’s a primary respect for Individual rights OVER the Collective interest , which is ALWAYS politically determined by groups of INdividuals. There is no such thing as “The Collective” other than the so called “Animal Spirits” or the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith. No one claiming to know the social “Good” to be served by any state or local policy is doing anything more than expressing their personal, individual opinion on the matter and getting some other individuals to agree or enforce it against others. The ONLY thing there is are Individuals who either respect others rights or those who do not. The only true social good is to respect the life and responsibility of the individual, everything else is a fantasy of mob rule or dictatorship.

    1. There are two kinds of people in this world – people who think there are two kinds of people in this world, and people who don’t.

    2. Did you even read the article? He’s talking about how labels, meanings, and connotations have changed over time. You know, just how the term “liberal” has changed.

      1. Unfortunately, his case isn’t all that convincing because many of the terms he wishes to co-opt for libertarianism have distinctly different meanings going back over a century. Using those terms to define libertarian philosophical concepts would not provide clarity – just the opposite. It would further muddy the definition of the terms and associate libertarianism with totally unrelated statist concepts, perhaps in some ill-conceived attempt to make them more palatable.

  9. Libertarianism is the furthest point from socialism. And indeed it is anti-social in nature–while socialism is by contrast hyper-social. The former shields individual responsibility from social conscientiousness; the latter shields public conscientiousness from individual responsibility.

    The healthy, moral philosophy merges the two into one whole principled conscientiousness:

    http://whatdirectdemocracymigh…..democracy/

    For Debate: http://themoraloctagon.freeforums.net/index.cgi

    1. Indeed, the most intellectually advanced positions are carved from elastic principles and fence-riding. There really IS a third way where two wholly and completely incompatible ideologies can be melded into a cohesive whole. You must simply dissonate your cognate to discover it….

  10. Annals of Anglican statesmanship – ex-Archbishop Desmond Tutu refuses to meet with Tony Blair, says Blair should be tried for war crimes in the International Criminal Court – apparently on charges of aggressive war, but Tutu isn’t specific.

    Tutu also seems to suggest that George W. Satan should be tried, too, but again he’s vague on this. His main point is that war is bad, mmmkay?

  11. back in Ronald Reagan’s Goldwater days, he said it best:

    You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream–the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path.

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  13. The term individualist, let’s recall, was a pejorative aimed at people of the libertarian persuasion. It was meant to stigmatize them as anti-social. The adjectives rugged and atomistic were later added to drive home the point.

    I can’t imagine anyone trying to insult a libertarian nowadays as “you atomist!”

    But I guess it must have been more common up until a few decades ago, since interestingly Rothbard discusses the same topic to dispel criticisms of libertarians and individualists being anti-social and atomistic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0H2rSJayL_c
    where he also mentions Albert Nock’s distinction between state power vs social power

  14. I started reading this but stopped once i discovered that the whole article was conflating personality traits with political ideology.

    A person can be social and be of any political ideology.

    A person can be a hermit and be of any political ideology.

    Why 500+ words were needed to explain that is beyond my understanding.

  15. Adam Mossoff’s paper, “Who Cares What Thomas Jefferson Thought About Patents? Reevaluating the Patent ‘Privilege’ in Historical Context,” does a great job of questioning the application of the terminology of “privilege.” He argues that equivocation over the different historical usages of the word leads free market advocates to attack legitimate free market mechanisms, like patents.

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/pa….._id=892062

    1. My understanding of patents as privilege do not come from what Thomas Jefferson had to say about patents, but what Steven Kinsella, in “Against Intellectual Monopoly”, had to say about patents. Michele Boldrin and David Levine, in “Against Intellectual Monopoly” make the economic case that patents and copyrights *do not work* to help the originator of the idea, nor do they help advance industry or arts.

      Patents, and even copyrights, for that matter, are privileges pure and simple. Patents historically arose as governments tried to attract talent to their provinces; it was a fairly recent idea to restrict patent grants to those who came up with new inventions. Copyright arose from government attempts to restrict what can and cannot be published. How is either one of these not “governmental grant of privilege”?

      The results of either one of these privileges has only been restriction in engineering and creativity, making the creative process fraught with “landmines” that can explode in your face in ways you wouldn’t expect, when you attempt to create something new.

      The creators of new things, and society in general, would be far better off, if these “privileges” just did not exist.

  16. The thoughts that people have, that they have trouble putting into words, are trouble precisely because they weren’t thought in words in the first place.

    Overreach by Wittgenstein.’

    Don’t we all do it?

  17. The Austrian tradition in economics has long emphasized that the chief advantage of the market process over central decision-making lies in the market’s embodiment of a social, or collective, intelligence that is denied to any individual or small subgroup. This doesn’t mean that a collective mind literally emerges, only that the social process and the price system combine in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The market “knows” more than any of us do alone.

  18. He likewise is a methodological individualist if he believes that only individuals act and create; only individuals have intentions, values, and preferences. He understands that when a group acts, it’s really just individuals acting in concert.

  19. Sounds like a series of books I would enjoy reading.

  20. But libertarian philosophy is the furthest thing from anti-social. That would be a peculiar way indeed to describe a philosophy that embraces?with gusto!?the global division of labor and free trade across property, city, county, state, and national lines. (Yes, I left out planetary?for now.)

  21. libertarianism (or liberalism).

    And that’s the point at which one can stop reading.

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