Previous post Next post

Defining Ordered Individualism

The fundamental social phenomenon is the division of labor and its counterpart human cooperation.

- Ludwig Von Mises, Human Action, p. 151

People in the mainstream think of economics as a way for others to feed their greed. Either that or their eyes glaze over when libertarians start to talk about things like capitalism, private property rights, the money supply, or interest rates. However, at the foundation of all these things is something everyone agrees is important, human cooperation. Mises’ quote succinctly yet beautifully teaches that the ideas of cooperation in society and economics are connected.

Also, found in Mises’ quote are the competing ideas of individualism and collectivism. On one hand, it teaches the importance of individual specialization by mentioning the division of labor. On the other hand, the existence of human cooperation means no one is an island to themselves. For people to live a happy and healthy life they need both, meaningful connections to others and for others to value their uniqueness. Following neither individualism nor collectivism accomplishes those goals, but Ordered Individualism does.

Like any kind of individualism, Ordered Individualism starts with the individual. Society is a large group and made up of other subgroups like cities, races, and nations. But the group isn’t the thing that acts. Groups don’t think. Individuals within these groups do the thinking and acting. Mises makes this point well:

That there are nations, states, and churches, that there is social cooperation under the division of labor, becomes discernible only in the actions of certain individuals. Nobody ever perceived a nation without perceiving its members. In this sense one may say that a social collective comes into being through the actions of individuals. That does not mean that the individual is temporally antecedent. It merely means that definite actions of individuals constitute the collective. 

Schaeffer Agrees with Mises

Mises approaches the subject from a secular, materialist perspective, but religious scholars make the same observations. Take the quote below from Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer for example:

What they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity. It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives. The results of their thought world flow through their fingers from their tongues into the external world. This is true of Michelangelo’s chisel, and it is true of a dictator’s sword.

Like Mises, he acknowledges that people associate in groups, work together, and communicate their values to others. But he concludes his statement emphasizing personal lives, fingers, and tongues. Groups don’t possess those things. Individuals do. Mises focuses on individual action in his praxeology. Schaeffer focuses on the fact that only individuals think:

“As a man thinketh, so is he.” is really most profound. An individual is not just the product of the forces around him. He has a mind, an inner world. Then, having thought, a person can bring forth actions into the external world and thus influence it. People are apt to look at the outer theater of action, forgetting the actor who “lives in the mind” and who therefore is the true actor in the external world.

Both men agreed that the group is an abstraction. A person can be influenced by others in a variety of ways but at the end of it all, he or she will think, speak, and act autonomously. Therefore, the value of the individual must be maintained, and their interests considered.

This is even more important for those in leadership positions. Inevitably, individuals will want or value different things even to the point where those things are in opposition. To switch emphasis from the individual to a group opens the door for a leader to suppose there is one common interest which applies to all and requires the compliance of all. That may sound reasonable on the surface, but the unintended consequences are dangerous.

Rousseau Emphasized Group, Justified Tyranny

Jean Jacques Rousseau, French philosopher 1712-1778, believed one common interest existed for all of society and called it the general will. Early on, he believed that a voting majority could reveal the general will. Later in life, he changed his mind after seeing democracy in action. Anytime people vote on an issue, there is a group that doesn’t agree with the decision. Instead of rejecting the idea of the general will, he still believed that it exists, but claimed that individuals often don’t or can’t understand what it is.

That was Rousseau’s grave error, because it allows a political leader to claim he knows the general will on his own. He doesn’t have to consult citizens, vote counts, or sociological data. All he must do is state what he thinks is best, even if it goes directly against the interests of individuals. This makes the general will something closer to Gnosticism than a real understanding of society’s common interests. When a political leader pursues any policy, using force to implement it is on the table. Therefore, the political leader could cage and kill individuals in his attempt to do what is best for all of society. In this kind of situation neither individual nor group interests are being served. Instead, a President, dictator, or legislator serves his own interests.

Societal Order

Going back to Mises and Schaeffer, they established that the fundamental unit of society is the individual. Yet all these individuals work together to accomplish goals where they have common overlapping interests. Humans don’t thrive in isolation. We thrive in cooperation. No political leader needs to dictate how individuals work together, because free individuals pursuing their own interests create spontaneous order in society. That is Ordered Individualism, which aligns with Mises’ description of society:

Society is the outcome of conscious and purposeful behavior. This does not mean that individuals have concluded contracts by virtue of which they have founded human society. The actions which have brought about social cooperation and daily bring it about anew do not aim at anything else than cooperation and coadjuvancy with others for the attainment of definite singular ends. The total complex of the mutual relations created by such concerted actions is called society. It substitutes collaboration for the – at least conceivable – isolated life of individuals. Society is division of labor and combination of labor. In his capacity as an acting animal man becomes a social animal.

In our economic relationships, the division of labor is irreplaceable since it is the mechanism by which mankind cooperates. It is also how individuals demonstrate their uniqueness. Everyone likes to express their personality, use their talents, and form their own identity. The division of labor facilitates individual expression. At the same time, everyone needs connections with others. Individuals find meaning, purpose, security, and enjoyment by participating in groups like families, friends, businesses, hobbies, and churches.

Many fear that instead of spontaneous order, leaving people free to seek their own interests and associations will lead to chaos, theft, and death. Of course, people do bad things. No system will perfectly serve the needs of each person. However, humans were created to both be valued as individuals and to work together with others in meaningful relationships, in other words to live according to Ordered Individualism.

Full story here Are you the author?
Previous post See more for 6b.) Next post
Tags: ,

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.