How Individualism Distorts Your Perception

In the last 2 posts I have suggested that the philosophy of individualism lies at the heart of the system of thought of Western civilisation, generating the myths that justify the inequality and moral failings of our global economic system.

So what, specifically, do I see as being the flaws in this philosophy? As usual, in seeking to be as brief as I can, this will be a dangerously summarised account, and at the outset I should point out that to describe these failings is not to deny its accomplishments. The philosophy of individualism has made an immense and unique contribution in raising our awareness of the potential of each individual – that all people have capacity, that excellence and worth is not limited to a specific class or caste or ethnic group – and in rejecting authoritarian and non-democratic forms of government. But notwithstanding this contribution to human progress, the ideology is logically and factually flawed. If we blindly cling to it with a religious fervour these flaws will, in the end, cause us to have a wholly distorted view of reality.

So what are these flaws? First and foremost, individualism ignores a simple fact of science. Humanity is a social animal. In biology it is recognised that there are species that live with no cooperation, and species that live in collective groups, with social hierarchies and rules and a great deal of cooperation. Indeed, the more advanced species tend to be cooperative ones. And the extent of capacity for, and necessity of, cooperation among human beings is off the scale compared to other species.

We can learn from psychology that a person’s sense of self-worth, their mental health and their overall happiness is only possible through their sense of belonging and contribution to a community. We do not, in fact, derive our greatest happiness from material consumption, but from our connections to others, the feeling that we are contributing something worthwhile, and from our sense of purpose.

Similarly all religious traditions in the world teach that a person’s worth comes from their rectitude of conduct and selflessness, summed up in the “golden rule” found in all the world’s major religions: “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself”. Now, we cannot argue on the basis of religious belief in a scientific discussion, but the mere fact that such teachings are so universal, in all religious traditions at all times in history, tells us something about the relevance of such teachings to the human condition.

In addition, we can turn to history and sociology. Humankind’s advance through history is a story of ever-increasing cooperation, of finding ever more complex levels of collective organisation. One can think of mankind’s social evolution through the stages of tribe, city-state and then nation, till today we are ever-increasingly finding the need for levels of international cooperation. Indeed, one of the conclusions of this blog is that global cooperation in coordinating the economy is absolutely essentially now that we have an interconnected, global economy.

Individualism fails to recognise that no one anywhere gets rich without a functioning society. Societies and nation states do not magically coalesce from the separate actions of individuals, they are forged and moulded by people coming together to work collectively with a vision for how that society can be. As has been highlighted in the earlier posts in this section, even the economic development of Britain and the US was the result of planned action by government to protect and invest in particular industries. Right up to the present day, the development of any new area of technology or economic life has required significant state investment before it could be picked up by the private sector. Mazzucato’s work on this is particularly compelling, summarised in the blog here.

Individualism simply whitewashes out our debt to society, and leaves us feeling that we earned it all, on our own, and anyone saying we need to pay something back (whether in tax or in a more altruistic contribution to society) is attempting to steal from us.

The undeniable fact of the collective and social nature of the human being exposes the concept of “the sovereignty of the individual” as being a corruption and perversion of human nature. Basing society on a system of thought that denies an integral part of human existence, and cuts us off the from all the potential of selfless, cooperative action, is likely to have huge impacts on human well-being, and it is thus no surprise that we are seeing an uncontrollable epidemic of mental illness in the Western world. This distortion finds expression in orthodox economics in the idea that the “miracle of the market” can equilibrate the competing interests of individuals acting purely out of self-interest and produce the best outcome for society. In its most extreme form it glorifies selfishness and greed, elevating the very worst tendencies of the human condition to the status of moral values.

Secondly, there is a key logical flaw within the philosophy (so even if its starting premises were not refuted by science, the philosophy itself can be refuted by logic). I have summarised individualism as, in essence, the philosophy that every individual should be free to do whatever they wish to do, as long as this does not impact on the right of others to do the same. But most of our actions are bound to have an impact on others. Does my desire to listen to loud music impinge on my neighbour’s right to peace and quiet, or does their desire to enjoy their home without hearing their neighbours impinge on my right to listen to my music? Does your desire for the convenience of owning a car deny my right to clean air, or does my desire for clean air impinge on your right to personal transport?

I could probably continue coming up with examples and never exhaust the possibilities. Hayek suggests (in Chapter 9 of The Constitution of Liberty) that society develops generally accepted norms of what aspects of life are considered in your ”private sphere” on which no other should infringe. But he offers no explanation of how the boundaries of this “sphere” are defined, how we can decide what does or does not lie within it. Does the right to personal transport override the right to clean air? Hayek gives us no way to answer this question. The chapter is a deeply unsatisfying fudge, in which Hayek is just trying to make this impossible conundrum go away – and of course, as stated last week, he would have been wholly convinced that he had done so, because that is what he wanted to believe. But the fact remains, the very basis of the philosophy of individualism is impossible to apply in reality, precisely because we are not all isolated individuals, but rather our lives and actions are inextricably interconnected within a society that is itself created by collective endeavour.

Thirdly, the philosophy ignores the impact of the injustice and inequality entrenched in society through the centuries when none of the tenets of individualism were conceived or remotely adhered to. Allow me to explain. First of all, let’s ignore the scientific and logical flaws pointed out above, and for now suppose that we can fully accept the notion that a society in which everyone is free to choose their own path as long as they don’t impinge on the freedom of others will give rise to the most just distribution of wealth. And let us also suppose Western societies do indeed function in this manner.

Even if we were to accept all this, we know that in the past no society was like this. Britain progressed very slowly, through a series of hard-won reforms, to become the society we know today. Throughout that evolution, following each reform no effort was made to adjust and rectify the unequal and unjust distribution of wealth and privilege that had resulted from the previous functioning of society. Even if we could identify a hypothetical point in the social and political evolution of Britain when individual freedoms were fully respected by the government and the law, the path our society took from that point forward would still be determined by the distribution of wealth and power that existed when that point was reached. Without any effort to address previous injustices, the outcomes of that society once it embraces the philosophy of individualism would still be unjust, even by the standards of individualism.

Yet strangely, all those who espouse this ideology never argue for action to be taken to rectify the injustices of the past, to level the playing field so that there is equality of opportunity for all.

And similarly, just as we can consider the historic injustice in the distribution of wealth and opportunity across society, we can consider the situation for every individual. Individualism is the ‘hidden ideology’ arguing against state funded support and intervention for the least well-off and the least capable in society. It suggests that everyone’s situation in life is a result of their own effort and innate ability. But if everyone was left to live by their own lights from birth, we would all quickly starve. Every human is entirely dependent on those around them for their physical and intellectual development in their early years. While there comes a point when every individual must bear their own responsibility, by the time we reach this age much of our character and intellectual capacity has already been shaped by the influences around us. Without a system of education that enables every individual to develop their full potential, some individuals are always disadvantaged through no fault of their own.

In the first chapter of The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek distinguishes between 3 types of liberty, which he says are sometimes known as “individual”, “political”, and “inner”. He is making the point that he is concerned with “individual liberty” (the liberty of individualism). “Political liberty” is the freedom to participate in political processes. “Inner liberty” (also known, he says, as “metaphysical” or “subjective liberty”) is the ability to make considered decisions rather than being “slave of his passions”. He then states: “Whether or not a person is able to choose intelligently between alternatives, or to adhere to a resolution he has made, is a problem distinct from whether or not other people will impose their will upon him.” And for Hayek that is the end of the matter – there is literally no discussion of this for the rest of the book. If someone’s upbringing is such that they are unable to make intelligent choices (or even to identify the possibility of these choices), the fact that there is no external impediment to these choices is sufficient to regard this society as free, and its distribution of wealth and privilege as just.

This example, I feel, is indicative of how individualism serves as an excuse to justify the privilege of those who benefit from the unequal and unjust distribution of resources and opportunity in society. Hayek dismisses the impact of this injustice, rooted in the centuries-long history of every society, in a sentence, and never considers it again, because the whole allure of individualism is that it tells you that you don’t need to look at it.

Indeed, why do so many people oppose even the smallest tax increase for the wealthiest in society? Why do we do nothing about the trillions of dollars held by the 0.1% that could potentially pay for the work needed to decarbon our economy? Because the ‘hidden ideology’ of individualism says that such action can never be justified. If we start to concede instances when it could be justified, this undermines the ideology itself. Why do we see such insanely irrational denial of climate change? Because the very existence of this problem, a problem that can only be tackled by global cooperation, collective action and intense government effort, proves the impotence of individualism. But this ideology is the shield protecting the wealth and privilege of the 1% from the forces of justice and rationality. One crack in this wall and the entire edifice of justification could crumble. It’s not giving up their wealth that they are scared of – it’s giving up the inner feeling of justification, that everything they have is earned and deserved.

This is why those who have bought into this myth (so many of whom are nowhere near the 1%) can never concede so much as an inch.

To many people, this post would be highly controversial and even inflammatory. But I don’t believe there is anything controversial or inflammatory about it. I believe I have pointed out flaws in the ideology that stand or fall on the basis of the facts and logic presented. If this ‘inflames’ anyone it is because of the deep-rooted psychological need to believe in the tenets of this ideology – without it, the very justification for everything they possess in life falls away. It is a crisis of identity, which of course is what we see occurring in nation after nation across the world.

I started this section of the blog with 2 posts attempting to describe briefly the historical facts of how Britain and the USA came to be so rich. These facts contradict the popular notions which, I suggested, are little more than myths. The ideology of individualism is the source of these myths, which persist with such force because of the deep psychological need that people have to feel justified in what they possess and in their position in society.

As already described in the previous 2 posts, mainstream orthodox economic theory, ultimately rooted in neoclassical theory, merges seamlessly with this ideology, giving it a veneer of scientific validity. And hence the conclusions presented in this blog (e.g. see here and here) seem wild, outlandish, outrageous. In particular, the need for the government to play a role in managing and coordinating the economy seems inconceivable to modern Western sensibilities. Yet the blog is long and detailed precisely because I am at pains to point out empirical facts and proceed with meticulous, logical arguments. These conclusions are where facts and logic lead. But in any forum where such ideas are raised, one rarely finds coherent, rational responses. Instead, we face the animalistic howl of, “But that’s socialism!” And then suddenly one is faced with a series of objections that bear no relation to the arguments actually being presented. Once the boogey-man of socialism has been invoked, the person who feels their privilege is threatened will proceed to attack you with all their arguments against whatever version of socialism exists within their own head, no matter how irrelevant these are to what you are actually saying.

So, like the parent explaining to the child that there are not, in fact, monsters hiding under the bed, next week’s post will deal with the relationship between the conclusions of this blog and socialist thought.

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