Journaltalk - Individualism: True and False

Individualism: True and False

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Author
  • F.A. Hayek
Volume Number 1
Issue Number 1
Pages 1-32
File URL Individualism: True and False
Publication year 1948

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About Individualism and Economic Order

Publisher Mises Institute
Grouping social sciences
Categories economics, sociology, political philosophy

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3 comments

  1. Much of this introductory chapter to Hayek’s 1948 work deserves ample praise: that rationalist epistemology leads to an ever-encroaching desire to design state-imposed solutions; that individualism recognizes that man in a free state will achieve more than is possible laboring under centralized intelligent design; that true individualism is only selfish in the sense that the individual self directs his own affairs, whatever his egoist or altruist intentions; and that equality is a two-sided coin such that pursuing equality of treatment necessitates inequality of results, and vice versa.

    Unlike some other individualist theorists, his attack on state authority and especially its roots in rationalism is made largely on practical terms. He doesn’t say that statism encroaches on man’s “rights” or on moral principles. Rather, he makes the simple observation that individuals should direct their own affairs because they each are aware of the particulars and the intended objective of those affairs. Society at large and bureaucrats as its representatives simply can not know the ends that men seek in their several endeavors and can not devise all the practical means to achieve them.

    Certainly arguing for a liberal social order from a rights-centered perspective (like that of Locke, Rand, or Nozick) has its own pitfalls. But what if the problem is not with Hayek’s airtight reasoning of matching the actor with his wants, but with his presumption that the correct object of analysis is the individual and not society? If the reader believes that social goals are more aspiring than individual goals, Hayek’s arguments could be used against him: just as it is more practical for individuals to know and direct the pursuits of the individual, it is likewise more practical for society to know and direct the pursuits of society. It is not clear that Hayek has established methodological individualism before arguing for political individualism.

    This should not be a difficult proposition. As societies have become less autocratic and more responsive to democratic impulse, they have also become more tailored towards individualistic ends. Post-war rationalist planners (conservative and liberal) emphasize large welfare states to achieve largely individual goals instead of leviathan state actors to achieve collectivist goals. In other words, history is on the side of the methodological individualist. Yet Hayek did not know this in 1948, and should stress that point more.

    What logically follows from this is that rationalist planners would reduce the ends (and the means) of human pursuits to a least common denominator. As Hayek puts it, “The concentration of all decisions in the hands of authority itself produces a state of affairs in which what structure society still possesses is imposed upon it by government and in which individuals have become interchangeable units with no other definite or durable relations to one another than those determined by the all-comprehensive organization.” (p.27) What is lost is individuality and the localized functions of civil society. Even for those who have communitarian or anti-individualist preconceptions, this is a tragic development.

    posted 22 Sep 2010 by Tony Quain

  2. Using the contrast between two philosophies that both have been referred to as individualism, Hayek outlines many of the usual justifications for a government and an economic system built around precepts of individual liberty. He tracks the intellectual history of the word “individualism”, claiming that what he calls false individualism leads inevitably to socialism and collectivism. He praises true individualism as worthy because it produces the most desirable results; false individualism has been wrongly associated with it and thus usurped its meaning.
    Hayek argues that the basic principle dividing the two philosophies is their differing conceptions of human nature. False individualism is more or less an overconfident humanism, while true individualism freely admits to human foibles and limitations. Thus, people who subscribe to false individualism have inflated expectations that men can rationally design the perfect society. Hayek argues for property rights, limited government, free exchange of goods and services, and the price mechanism built on the idea that men are fallible. The order in society develops unintentionally from the choices that free people make. Hayek’s defense of a classical liberal society on these grounds is utilitarian and compelling.
    It is somewhat surprising the particular battle lines Hayek drew. He equates true individualism with the Anglo-American culture and its associated thinkers, like Adam Smith and Hume, while pointing to French thinkers following in the tradition of Descartes as the primary source of false individualism. Hayek claims that German culture has yet another sense of the word individualism, which is the rejection of historical tradition as a source of authority over one’s behavior. It is an interesting division but a little difficult to believe that nationality follows the divisions between the intellectual traditions so simply.
    The most surprising point in the essay is Hayek’s effort to demonstrate that liberty and cultural traditions are consistently compatible. Cultural norms develop from a spontaneous order that reflects the process of the market. Hayek argues that respect for naturally evolving norms, rather than designed ones, encourages respect for the power of spontaneous order to produce the most desirable outcomes. His assertions seem to match the historical outcomes of the French Revolution, which ended with a military dictatorship, and the American Revolution, which resulted in a system of government with a strong presumption of liberty. The former tried to radically remake the society but the latter was simply an assertion of principles deeply ingrained culturally.

    posted 06 May 2011 by Stephanie Myla Helmick

  3. Hayek does well to remind people of the true definition of individualism in his opening chapter. Many assume the common meaning of terms and concepts such as “individualism” without evaluating the meaning of the term or concept as it was used in a past age. However, Hayek does not seem to dive deep into the Bible to understand its methods or how they were supposed to work. He assumes that history has proven that biblical methods of economics do not work. He does acknowledge the usefulness of biblical principles, but does not see biblical methods as legitimate. Maybe the reason biblical methods have not worked is because governments and nations refuse to implement certain practices? Hayek does not take time to wonder what would happen if a Year of Jubilee was practiced. Finally, Hayek does not address biblical assumptions about man and how he works either. Men’s hearts are corrupt according to the Bible. Hence, greed and usury is prevalent. Hayek does a wonderful job of defining individualism, but makes too many assumptions about how the Bible should be used in regards to an economic system.

    posted 10 May 2013 by Matt

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