Sunday, August 26, 2012

Individualism: Its Meaning and Its Confusion

Individualism is a massive threat to the progressives, and it appears to become ever so much more for reasons which are oftimes hard to explain. But what do we mean by Individualism? There are frankly a plethora of meanings. At one extreme it is the Emersonian view of knowing yourself, being your own person. At another extreme are that of Hayek, and then the original construct of de Tocqueville. 

As we shall see, Emerson is one of self-identity, Hayek and refutation of communism, and de Tocqueville the personal crisis of French society and the pending loss of social identity. Frankly none truly provide a sense of current day Individualism. It should be contrasted to the Libertarian view especially the Rand world-view of extreme selfish apartness.

To set our view in context, Individualism is a belief in the sanctity of the individual, and that Government has the limited role of protection of person and property. Individuals are free to form associations, to transact trade and to communicate in an unencumbered manner in any fashion. Individuals are equal before the law and each other and that Government and Society shall in no way construct barriers for individual development or expression. This is a simple expression of Individualism. As we shall see it contrasts with many other views.

1. Emerson

We first begin with Emerson. Emerson was a Transcendentalist, an inhabitant of Concord, MA. Things have changed little in Concord since Emerson in that it is a habitat of academics and left wing thinkers. In many ways its inhabitants often think of themselves as a step above others intellectually as well as socially. I came to best understand that having resided in the adjacent town of Acton, considered in many ways the down casts of the Concord suburbs.

Thus Emerson was a voice of both Concord and Harvard elites of the 19th century. His view of Individualism was a view of expanding the individual’s spirit, less a view of the rights and responsibilities, than of the concept of self-enlightenment. For example we have from Emerson[1]:

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life.

A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not `studying a profession,' for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.

Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear; that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him, —and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history.

It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.

Here we have the Emersonian Individualism or self-reliance. There is a feeling of self-trust and the ability to strike out on his own. This is one view, and one which prevailed for many generations, the sense of the individual taking their own future into their own hands. The Emersonian view is thus not the Individualism that we see today, nor that of the settlers of Tennessee in the same period.

2. Ockham

Then there is the Ockham view of Individualism. Ockham was one of the first in the 14th century to express a sense of the individual, not of the subject, one who claimed the Pope was a heretic, John XXII, the pope in Avignon. In a sense Ockham was preceded by Columbanus who in a similar fashion took on Gregory I on many matters. To understand the Ockham Individualism we examine some of his logical structures. Let us examine a statement, subject and predicate, in a manner akin to Ockham.

Namely we perform a nominalist statement. That is we deny universals and believe only in each and every example.

We might say:

“All coneflowers are blue.”

Now what we may really mean is:

This coneflower and this coneflower and that coneflower etc. to describe the subject. Namely we look at each and every coneflower that we can.

But many nominalists may stop there. I would continue expending with the predicate as well:

This blue, this blue or that blue.

Namely we may ask what specific blue we mean. I can see many blue colors. If one were to examine the spectrum of each flower for its blueness one would see different spectra. In fact each cell has a different spectrum of blue. Blue as a universal does not exist, blue as a specific expression of anthocyanins does.

Thus the nominalist sees only individuals, individual subjects and individual predicates. Thus for Ockham only the individual exists, the idea of an ideal such as a group is merely the temporal expression of individuals assembling together.

3. Hayek

Then there is the Individualism of the polis, of how man and his Government relate. The best example here is to examine Hayek.

Now Hayek states[2]:

No political term has suffered worse in this respect than "individualism." It not only has been distorted by its opponents into an unrecognizable caricature-and we should always remember that the political concepts which are today out of fashion are known to most of our contemporaries only through the picture drawn of them by their enemies-but has been used to describe several attitudes toward society which have as little in common among themselves as they have with those traditionally regarded as their opposites. Indeed, when in the preparation of this paper I examined some of the standard descriptions of "individualism,"

Indeed as Hayek states, the use of the term by those opposed is often in a Sophist like manner of a Protagoras or Gorgias defined by them in a manner to be rejected. Hayek clearly understood this issue. This is the key point when dealing with Individualism, not to accept the definition of the opponent but to seek truth.

I almost began to regret that I had ever connected the ideals in which I believe with a term which has been so abused and so misunderstood. Yet, whatever else "individualism" may have come to mean in addition to these ideals, there are two good reasons for retaining the term for the view I mean to defend: this view has always been known by that term, whatever else it may also have meant at different times, and the term has the distinction that the word "socialism" was deliberately coined to express its opposition to individualism. It is with the system which forms the alternative to socialism that I shall be concerned[3].

I can give no better illustration of the prevailing confusion about the meaning of individualism than the fact that the man who to me seems to be one of the greatest representatives of true individualism, Edmund Burke, is commonly (and rightly) represented as the main opponent of the so-called "individualism" of Rousseau, whose theories he feared would rapidly dissolve the commonwealth "into the dust and powder of individuality," and that the term "individualism" itself was first introduced into the English language through the translation of one of the works of another of the great representatives of true individualism, De Tocqueville, who uses it in his Democracy in America to describe an attitude which he deplores and rejects. Yet there can no doubt that both Burke and De Tocqueville stand in all essentials close to Adam Smith, to whom nobody will deny the title of individualist, and that the "individualism" to which they are opposed is something altogether different from that of Smith.

Again as Hayek states, even de Tocqueville uses Individualism in a manner which expresses his own fears in France rather than the actuality he observed in America.

I cannot better illustrate the contrast in which Cartesian or rationalistic "individualism" stands to this view than by quoting a famous passage from Part II of the Discourse on Method. Descartes argues that "there is seldom so much perfection in works composed of many separate parts, upon which different hands had been employed, as in those completed by a single master." He then goes on to suggest (after, significantly, quoting the instance of the engineer drawing up his plans) that "those nations which, starting from a semi-barbarous state and advancing to civilization by slow degrees, have had their laws successively determined, and, as it were, forced upon them simply by experience of the hurtfulness of particular crimes and disputes, would by this process come to be possessed of less perfect institutions than those which, from the commencement of their association as communities, have followed the appointment of some wise legislator." To drive this point home, Descartes adds that in his opinion "the past pre-eminence of Sparta was due not to the pre-eminence of each of its laws in particular ... but to the circumstance that, originated by a single individual, they all tended to a single end."

True individualism is, of course, not anarchism, which is but another product of the rationalistic pseudo-individualism to which it is opposed. It does not deny the necessity of coercive power but wishes to limit it-to limit it to those fields where it is indispensable to prevent coercion by others and in order to reduce the total of coercion to a minimum. While all the individualist philosophers are probably agreed on this general formula, it must be admitted that they are not always very informative on its application in specific cases.

Neither the much abused and much misunderstood phrase of "laissez faire" nor the still older formula of "the protection of life, liberty, and property" are of much help. In fact, in so far as both tend to suggest that we can just leave things as they are, they may be worse than no answer; they certainly do not tell us what are and what are not desirable or necessary fields of government activity. Yet the decision whether individualist philosophy can serve us as a practical guide must ultimately depend on whether it will enable us to distinguish between the agenda and the nonagenda of government.

Hayek’s discussion is as close as we may come to Individualism in the polis. Hayek takes the issue of Government control to task and it becomes the heart of his description.

4. de Tocqueville

The earliest popularizer of the term Individualism was de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America. He was clearly not a fan of the concept. In fact he saw it as a threat. But as a Frenchman, having understood the consequences of the mob, to him it meant uncontrolled anarchy. Many have used de Tocqueville’s observations as a basis for rejecting Individualism. I would argue, however, that it is more an expression of his fear of loss of French culture than a true rejection of what he observed.

de Tocqueville had stated[4]:

I HAVE shown how it is that in ages of equality every man seeks for his opinions within himself; I am now to show how it is that in the same ages all his feelings are turned towards himself alone. Individualism is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth. Our fathers were only acquainted with egoisme (selfishness). Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Selfishness originates in blind instinct; individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved feelings; it originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity of heart.

Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness. Selfishness is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than to another; individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of condition.

Among aristocratic nations, as families remain for centuries in the same condition, often on the same spot, all generations become, as it were, contemporaneous. A man almost always knows his forefathers and respects them; he thinks he already sees his remote descendants and he loves them. He willingly imposes duties on himself towards the former and the latter, and he will frequently sacrifice his personal gratifications to those who went before and to those who will come after him. Aristocratic institutions, moreover, have the effect of closely binding every man to several of his fellow citizens. As the classes of an aristocratic people are strongly marked and permanent, each of them is regarded by its own members as a sort of lesser country, more tangible and more cherished than the country at large. As in aristocratic communities all the citizens occupy fixed positions, one above another, the result is that each of them always sees a man above himself whose patronage is necessary to him, and below himself another man whose co-operation he may claim.

Men living in aristocratic ages are therefore almost always closely attached to something placed out of their own sphere, and they are often disposed to forget themselves. It is true that in these ages the notion of human fellowship is faint and that men seldom think of sacrificing themselves for mankind; but they often sacrifice themselves for other men. In democratic times, on the contrary, when the duties of each individual to the race are much more clear, devoted service to any one man becomes more rare; the bond of human affection is extended, but it is relaxed.

Among democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself. As each class gradually approaches others and mingles with them, its members become undifferentiated and lose their class identity for each other. Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it.

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.

Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

In many ways this was less an observation of Individualism than a response by de Tocqueville towards the classless and open society he found himself in. Brogan presents an excellent summary of this in his biography of the author[5]. de Tocqueville, especially in the last sentence reveals his bias to a society where all are equal. He still saw merit and need for a society where the right people intermingled.

5. American Leftist

Now having briefly discussed these concepts I come to a recent article in the NY Times. From the NY Times[6] in an article ironically entitled “Deluded Individualism” what appears in my opinion to be some junior faculty member at an art school opined on the nature of what he thinks individualism is. Specifically he states:

In Chisago County, Minn., The Times's reporters spoke with residents who supported the Tea Party and its proposed cuts to federal spending, even while they admitted they could not get by without government support. Tea Party aficionados, and many on the extreme right of the Republican party for that matter, are typically characterized as self-sufficient middle class folk, angry about sustaining the idle poor with their tax dollars. Chisago County revealed a different aspect of this anger: economically struggling Americans professing a robust individualism and self-determination, frustrated with their failures to achieve that ideal.

One sees the typical and needless setting the political stage. One need read no further to see where this “argument” is to go.

Why the stubborn insistence on self-determination, in spite of the facts? One might say there is something profoundly American in this. It's our fierce individualism shining through. Residents of Chisago County are clinging to notions of past self-reliance before the recession, before the welfare state. It's admirable in a way. Alternately, it evokes the delusional autonomy of Freud's poor ego.

Freud notwithstanding, the Individualism is the freeing of the individual to maximize their potential. There are times when individuals need help, Individualism does not negate, deny, decry, or prevent that, indeed the ability of individuals to associate for purposes of assistance is the heart of Individualism.

These people, like many across the nation, rely on government assistance, but pretend they don't. They even resent the government for their reliance. If they looked closely though, they'd see that we are all thoroughly saturated with government assistance in this country: farm subsidies that lower food prices for us all, mortgage interest deductions that disproportionately favor the rich, federal mortgage guarantees that keep interest rates low, a bloated Department of Defense that sustains entire sectors of the economy and puts hundreds of thousands of people to work. We can hardly fathom the depth of our dependence on government, and pretend we are bold individualists instead.

The above stretches the point. Mortgage deductions are limited, and that is not how the rich defer taxes, it is through capital gains, and that deferment typically goes back into rational investments, not like the Government waste in failed companies. Yes, in many ways the Defense Department is bloated, but so too are the ambitions to become policeman for the world. We do not depend on Government; we all too often are burdened by Government. Farm subsidies distort prices, and Medicare often distorts medical waste and fraud to the extreme. Yes, those who can afford Medicare should pay more, and in addition Medicare should be an insurance policy for extremes not for day to day costs.

Thanks to a decades-long safety net, we have forgotten the trials of living without it. This is why, the historian Tony Judt argued, it's easy for some to speak fondly of a world without government: we can't fully imagine or recall what it's like. We can't really appreciate the horrors Upton Sinclair witnessed in the Chicago slaughterhouses before regulation, or the burden of living without Social Security and Medicare to look forward to. Thus, we can entertain nostalgia for a time when everyone pulled his own weight, bore his own risk, and was the master of his destiny. That time was a myth. But the notion of self-reliance is also a fallacy.

The slaughter houses are examples of Pigou versus Coase. We establish Government tax burdens and then infrastructures rather than facilitating direct punishment for doing harm, Pigou versus Coase. If bad meat caused harm, and if we had an efficient system of remedies, then those harmed could readily seek restitution and punishment on those rendering the harm. For example, bankers causing a bank failure should face the most severe of punishments, the most severe. Instead they become contributors to the current Administration.

Spinoza greatly influenced Freud, and he adds a compelling insight we would do well to reckon with. Spinoza also questioned the human pretense to autonomy. Men believe themselves free, he said, merely because they are conscious of their volitions and appetites, but they are wholly determined.

We are not speaking of the mind. We are speaking of the reality of day to day life. We make decisions, often constrained ones, but it is the individual who sees ways around that, the entrepreneur, who creates the ultimate value in our society. Spinoza was the prototypical individual, rejecting his community and setting himself apart.

In fact, Spinoza claimed - to the horror of his contemporaries -that we are all just modes of one substance, "God or Nature" he called it, which is really the same thing. Individual actions are no such thing at all; they are expressions of another entity altogether, which acts through us unwittingly. To be human, according to Spinoza, is to be party to a confounding existential illusion - that human individuals are independent agents - which exacts a heavy emotional and political toll on us. It is the source of anxiety, envy, anger - all the passions that torment our psyche - and the violence that ensues. If we should come to see our nature as it truly is, if we should see that no "individuals" properly speaking exist at all, Spinoza maintained, it would greatly benefit humankind.

We are to degree independent agents, but as I stated we have substantial constraints that we manage from time to time to work around as a goal seeking creature. The author perhaps has never met or spoken to an entrepreneur. When going into Korea, Thailand, Russia, Turkey, Poland, etc I saw no constraints, just obstacles that I found ways around through associations, working with other individuals, and relying not one iota on Government or society in the sense of the author. I was not alone, there are many such entrepreneurs.

There is no such thing as a discrete individual, Spinoza points out. This is a fiction. The boundaries of 'me' are fluid and blurred. We are all profoundly linked in countless ways we can hardly perceive. My decisions, choices, actions are inspired and motivated by others to no small extent.

One would tend to disagree if one were an Ockhamist. A nominalist clearly sees nothing but individuals, and society is at best a collection of specific associations, transient as that may be.

The passions, Spinoza argued, derive from seeing people as autonomous individuals responsible for all the objectionable actions that issue from them. Understanding the interrelated nature of everyone and everything is the key to diminishing the passions and the havoc they wreak.

Let me respond to this view. First, Spinoza was a bit more than the writer contends, but that is a text unto itself. Second this is a Sophist argument, taking a definition of Individualism to prove a point, a definition devoid of much of what we have presented above.

6. A Canonical Model

Let me now attempt in a simple fashion to assemble all of these elements. We commence by defining certain units. It is always useful to do so because so many authors in a Sophist like manner attack a position of the other side and for which the other side never took such a position.

Individual: The individual was just that, the singular person. Although the individual oftimes had a sense of extreme personal responsibility, such was enabled and supported by family, associations, and localities.

Family: Like associations, family is a key aggregating element. Unlike de Tocqueville who sees family as position in society, American families often extend relationships, establish associations, and provide support.

Associations: The Associations are what de Tocqueville recognized when he saw the America of the first half of the 19th century. They were freely formed and ever changing relationship between individuals and focused on specific purposes. They may have been for trade, for banking, for farming, or for whatever purpose. They were flexible, often open, and frequently highly mobile. They were developed with some goal in mind, some agenda, real and objective. In a sense the church was just another association.

Locality: This is a collection of local, to some broad extent, of one’s neighbors and associates. One need just look at a New England Town meeting for a typical example of locality. Not an association as such, but an amalgam of individuals. As one moves from New England one sees less of the individual influence. In New Jersey the town gatherings are often “managed” by heavy handed politician who often have personal gain at stake.

Society: Society is a Platonic ideal. It is nothing more than the amalgam of individuals, associations, families and localities. What we see as a society in New Hampshire we see differently in California. Yet we use the same name.

Government: This is the complex issue. Government for the Individualist is a minimalist form, protect person and property and allow remediation in a Coasean manner. However for the Progressive the Government is the sine qua non of existence, the arbiter of all life and the decider of the individual’s fate. Just read between the lines of the Times piece and one get the understanding.

We do not deny Government and its function. We do not deny the existence of Society and the need to interact with it. We do see its role as limited, necessary, indeed, but not to the extent of delimiting the potential of the individual.

[3] Hayek also states: “Both the term "individualism" and the term "socialism" are originally the creation of the Saint-Simonians, the founders of modern socialism. They first coined the term "individualism" to describe the competitive society to which they were opposed and
then invented the word "socialism" to describe the centrally planned society in which all activity was directed on the same principle that applied within a single factory.”

[4] De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part II, Chapter 2, pp 482-484 in Mansfield and Winthrop.

[5] Brogan, H., Alexis de Tocqueville, Yale (New Haven) 2006, pp 355-356.