And the Straw Individual(ism) Is Down for the Count!

by Don Boudreaux on April 12, 2011

in Adam Smith, Complexity & Emergence, Economics, Myths and Fallacies

Mr. Ross Lampert

Dear Mr. Lampert:

Writing at Daily Kos, you charge individualism with being destructive and morally degenerate (“Deflating Conservative Arguments: The Myth of Individualism,” April 10).  A key sentence in your brief against individualism is this one: “In order to believe in individualism, you must be willing to believe that what we do has no effect on the outside world, that there is no causal relationship between anything that we do and the things we see around us.”

Nothing – truly nothing – can be further from the truth.

No academic discipline boasts as many champions of individualism as does economics.  From Adam Smith in the 18th century to Vernon Smith today, the ranks of economists have been full of learned and powerful voices for individualism.  Chief of among the reasons is that economists focus on explaining the material manifestations of the great and often global interconnectedness of human choices and actions.

Consider that the most iconic of economic models, supply and demand, is a means of explaining how the decisions of countless individual buyers and sellers are coordinated by prices and how changes in these decisions cause changes in prices and, through these changes in prices, changes in the actions of distant strangers – how, for example, increased demand for peanuts in Peoria will cause farmers in Alabama to plant less alfalfa and more peanuts.

Or consider what Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations: “In civilized society he [man] stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.  In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature.  But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren.”  Smith then explained how markets coordinate the demands of consumers with the actions of suppliers.

Does Smith – a champion of individualism if ever there was one – here sound as though he believed that “there is no causal relationship between anything that we do and the things we see around us”?

You’ve slain a straw man, sir.

Donald J. Boudreaux

(HT James McCammon)

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jjoxman April 12, 2011 at 6:31 pm

He hasn’t slain just a straw man. He’s working hard to argue against the central tenet of sociology: that the individual is the victim of society and thus does not affect society but is only affected by it.

vikingvista April 12, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Individualism stands for the free organization of society to allow individuals to benefit from one another.

Collectivism stands for the violent organization of society for the enslavement of some individuals for the benefit of others.

Mike Mulligan April 14, 2011 at 7:41 pm

True, it’s true.

Jim Ziegler April 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm

How can you take someone seriously who doesn’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect”?

Brian Bedient April 13, 2011 at 3:27 am

I know, right? This reminded me of some of the essays I collected back when I was a substitute high school teacher. Common opinion pieces forcibly extracted from ignorant teenagers tend to express violent outrage at a political position about which they know nothing, held by people not like them, in a manner that does more to express their emotions than present calm reasoning on the subject.

This is only the guy’s 4th blog post on Kos and we should probably give him a break for that reason, but I hope he learns soon that what his teachers found passable in school isn’t quite good enough for publication in the real world, and that you must actually do some research on an idea before you attempt to attack it or prepare to fight nothing but straw men your entire life.

Mikenshmirtz April 13, 2011 at 9:23 am

“Common opinion pieces forcibly extracted from ignorant teenagers tend to express violent outrage at a political position about which they know nothing…”

Weren’t these ignorant teenagers the ones who ultimately became the adult ignoramuses of Daily Kooks?

John V April 12, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Well, besides the predictable economic ignorance, our courageous little kossack makes the common leftist error of only taking part of what individualism means and ignoring the other. He dwells on freedom side and ignores the concepts of responsibility.

Ike April 13, 2011 at 1:48 pm

He also makes the error of conflating free-market ideas with corporatism.

Conservatives have seized upon the idea of individualism to further their argument toward a more corporatist state.

The Left has been far more the Corporatist influence in the last 75 years, right up to today.

Sam Grove April 12, 2011 at 7:10 pm

No central authority directs the activity of individual ants in a colony, but their every action, as directed by their instincts in the context of the information they receive, sustains not only their individual being, but that of the colony as well.

Humans are similarly constructed by their biological heritage and their environment.

Humans are obviously individuals and thus internally directed, left to their own devices, they seek the company of other humans and cooperate with them for mutual benefit and do not require any political authority to direct them in this social behavior.

indianajim April 13, 2011 at 10:25 am

Ants are very different from men in that they do NOT cooperate with strangers (as men do when conditions of private property and the rule of law are found). This difference is cannot be overemphasized.

Marcus April 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm

“You’ve slain a straw man, sir.” — Don

Well, he was, after all, arguing against the ‘myth’ of individualism.

Marcos Moulitsas April 12, 2011 at 7:35 pm

“A few people have noted in the comments that there are positive aspects of individualism. This is not what the diarist meant to address. I was referring to individualism as a societal theory, not a personal trait. I’m specifically referring to people pursuing their individual self interest as is discussed in the free market ideological theories of Milton Friedman. Sorry if this was unclear.”

robert_o April 12, 2011 at 11:42 pm

Unfortunately, even if we assume the disclaimer, the argument that follows is still bogus. As far as I know, Friedman never argued the strawman that Mr Lampert created.

CalgaryGuy April 13, 2011 at 12:13 am

Even with the added disclaimer it is still a strawman. There is nothing anti-individualist about me engaging in voluntary, mutually beneficial trade with another individual.

If one were to use his method of argument, then it would be presumed that he, as a collectivist (the opposite of an individualist defined as “primary importance of the individual”), believes that priority must be given to the group over each individual in it. Therefore the individual must ALWAYS be in agreement with the majority, lest they be accused of being “against” the group. I’m would hope he would feel that describing his beliefs in such a manner would be a strawman.

Tim April 13, 2011 at 12:51 am

Of course Friedman and other market theories say nothing remotely like the above straw man, they promote pursuing individual self interest because in a system of voluntary exchange people can only get ahead by providing goods and services other people want. There are some exceptions, but the above holds true as a general rule; and the same logic that implies markets in some situations may not work imply similar imperfections in government policy i.e. public choice economics.

A problem with altruism and/or collectivism is that individuals are best situated to judge their own needs and desires, not distant well wishers and bureaucrats; so while altruism and collectivism can often work in families or small groups/communities, it doesn’t work well when aggregated to societies composed of millions of people.

For example, some poor people when given money will use that money to find a job or increase their skills; while others will just think now I don’t have to work as hard. It’s very difficult to set some kind of national policy that can distinguish between the two. Along with, of course, the incentive effects of large amounts of redistribution on the rest of society which can reduce the opportunities available to those on the low end. Even Rawls recognized that some inequality was in the interest of those on the bottom.

Ike April 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm

I’m specifically referring to people pursuing their individual self interest as is discussed in the free market ideological theories of Milton Friedman.

First of all, there is no such thing as an “ideological theory.”

A proposition is either an Ideology or it is a Theory. It cannot be both, and here is why:

A Theory is an explanation of causality that has predictive value and can be replicated and tested. A Theory can never be proven correct, it can only be proven incorrect. A Theory that stands the test of time through experimentation, replication and predictive capacity can gain acceptance within a body of scientists.

An Ideology is a happy thought, a paradigm for explanation that by definition can not be proven wrong. This would apply to any argument that is circular in nature, or simply transcends our ability to measure or experiment.

Therefore, the “Ideological Theory” can not exist.

Furthermore, the free market ideas of Milton Friedman have indeed been tested, and they seem to work. Look at all of the nations that have pulled themselves out of poverty and significantly raised the standard of living for its citizens. They all have two things in common:

- Private ownership of property
- Rule of Law to enforce contracts and fairness in trade between individuals

Friedman’s ideas have indeed been tested… and for that matter, so have the ideas of Karl Marx. Theories about how economies can be centrally managed in a fruitful manner have failed. Those Theories have been proven invalid.

Marx’s Ideology — that of Dialectic Materialism — cannot be proven true or false, and is not subject to an experiment. Several thinkers have tried creating Theories of Ownership and Social Contract around the Ideology of Marx, but those Theories haven’t held up to observation either.

I hope this clarifies things a bit.

Simon April 12, 2011 at 7:37 pm


I appreciate your clarification, but that was still one of the most poorly written and logically mangled pieces I have ever seen.

SaulOhio April 12, 2011 at 7:43 pm

This Lampert guy apparently never hear of Ayn Rand, who built her individualist moral code on two premises: The choice to live and causality.

And he never read “Human Action”. I am into it a couple chapters, and Mises has a lot to say about causality.

Only the most ignorant person with respects to the ideas of individualism and free markets could fall for such a blatant strawman argument.

Where do they get these ideas?

Krishnan April 12, 2011 at 8:01 pm

They are not ignorant – I believe that they are so afraid of the idea that there are individuals – that they will attack that idea as vigorously as they can …

Losing control over the many because people can think for themselves and know what is good for them is impossible for them to accept …

Just witness the response of some politicians when there was a 1% cut this year after a 27% increase and you will understand that more than anything else – they fear the loss of control over people who can think for themselves and those that believe in the power of the individual

Richard Stands April 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm

The more I read and listen to progressives, the more I’m convinced their views stem from fear, envy, and pity (envy-by-proxy).

Tim April 13, 2011 at 1:03 am

Most non libertarian ideologies are based upon emotions. Conservatives are no bastion of rationality when it comes to terrorism, drug use, or gay equality.

Progressivism and neo-conservatism though are even worse because they combine hubris with those emotions, and set out to attempt to reshape the world in ways that are beyond their abilities.

JohnK April 13, 2011 at 8:21 am


Mike Mulligan April 14, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Yup II

Krishnan April 12, 2011 at 7:45 pm

I have a feeling the imminent opening of Atlas Shrugged has a bunch of people deathly afraid – that their nightmare is here – a movie of an amazingly popular book – and people will continue revolting against collectivism …

I would expect more vicious attacks on individualism … they will do their best to erase the idea of one person being able to do things -

Sam Grove April 12, 2011 at 8:04 pm

they will do their best to erase the idea of one person being able to do things -

without being under constant threat of political sanction.

JohnK April 13, 2011 at 8:23 am

“they will do their best to erase the idea of one person being able to do things”

Excepting politicians of course. But they don’t count as individuals because they are acting in the interest of The People.

dan April 12, 2011 at 7:52 pm

You don’t know what is best for you. Only the State is informed enough and capable of knowing what is best for you. One size fits all.
” We are who We have been waiting for”-Obama
” Becuase I know what is better”- Holder
“Maybe you should trade it in for a hybrid”-Obama Yes’m massa!
“Becuase white people have not suffered enough”-Holder
These are despicable narcissists…………

Krishnan April 12, 2011 at 8:03 pm

And sadists – they actually want to inflict pain on others who do not believe what they believe and not fall in line … They cannot and will not tolerate the individual – and dissent …

Gil April 12, 2011 at 10:21 pm

And a winner becaue Obama’s on the top of society and his thoughts become actions whereas Libertarians are forever waiting for someone who’ll throw off the chains of State.

Ken April 13, 2011 at 12:58 am

The same way that Carter is a winner. Obama will go down as the worst president of the first half of the 21st century and the worst since Carter and even worse than Carter.

Properal April 12, 2011 at 8:04 pm

The term individualism was a term the classical liberals retreated to after the social democrats took the term liberal from them. But even as they use they started using the clumsy term individualism there was an attempt to take that term by John Dewey in his book “Individualism Old and New”. Also Amity Shlaes points out in her book “The Forgotten Man” that Herbert Hoover “rejected the old brand of absolute individualism and disdained laissez-faire economics as ‘theoretic and emotional.’ Private property, he also said was ‘not a fetich’ for Americans…” in is book “American Individualism”. Though protecting the individual is paramount to freedom, laissez-faire is about free cooperation without coercion, so individualism is clumsy and misleading to many.

gregworrel April 12, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Inherent in his opening parable is the notion that people are incredibly stupid or sociopathic or both. And that Individualism countenances and encourages such behavior.

The “we know better than you what is good for you” thinking is the heart of collectivism. We see in in virtually every government regulation, mandate, and program.

Walter Williams made it clear that only governments are stupid enough to put holes in the bottom of their own boat.

gregworrel April 12, 2011 at 8:16 pm

We see “it” in virtually every…

I will gladly pay you Tuesday for an edit button today.

Doofor Smith April 12, 2011 at 8:13 pm

So the cafehayek lesson today is every visitor to this website is not one single organism. We are not a coral reef who enjoyed eating Don’s dinner together and now each playing a part in its digestion and nutrient extraction.
By extrapolation of this premise, mankind then, is not an entity, and not a collective. This action of reason must be performed by each of us alone; no one of us can do the thinking for another. This applies directly to economics.
The entity involved in production and trade is man. It is with the study of man—not of the loose aggregate known as a “community”—which any science of the humanities has to begin.
It is from one-to-many only that a great deal may be learned about society by studying man; this process is not reversible. Nothing can be learned about man by studying society—by studying the inter-relationships of entities one has never identified or defined. This constraint must be accepted. Our capacity to think is our only means of survival; we have no other natural advantage over nature to exploit.

dan April 12, 2011 at 10:39 pm

You can do all the thinking for another that you wish, but should he reject your thinking………….. Then what? Coercion and complusion will follow.
You like wheat bread, and all across the lands wheat bread is the chosen bread. Not your choice to make for me.
Hell, none of your business if I even eat bread.

Bill April 12, 2011 at 8:18 pm

I invite Mr. Lambert to read Leonard Read’s classic essay, “I, Pencil.”

Methinks1776 April 12, 2011 at 8:24 pm

In this vein, individualism causes destructive behavior because it presumes that what is right for the individual is right for all. This is a false presumption as what feels good to me might be to pillage the village, but clearly this would not be best for the village.

I’ve never met a child over the age of five whose reasoning is this poor.

vikingvista April 13, 2011 at 6:08 am

I think he was making a very poorly articulated reference to the prisoner’s dilemma–the fascists’ most overused unsubstantiated justification for violent social control since chaos theory was popularized.

Michael April 12, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Is debunking the nonsense from the Kos really necessary?

Don Boudreaux April 12, 2011 at 11:12 pm

That site’s readership is vastly larger than the readership of Cafe Hayek.

Michael April 12, 2011 at 11:41 pm

Of course it does. Insanity draws a crowd–take a look at Charlie Sheen.

The Kos’ drivel barely rises to the dignity of comedy. It certainly isn’t, in my humble opinion, worthy of the time/attention of scholars such as Dr. Roberts and yourself.

Michael April 13, 2011 at 9:32 am

*it is.

My kingdom for an edit button.

Anotherphil April 13, 2011 at 12:26 am

Well, they say ‘sex sells”. Daily Kos is a circle jerk of ignorance.

vidyohs April 13, 2011 at 6:50 am

Oxymoron: Join individualism!

Does anyone but me wonder when you read something so devoid of truth or fact, whether the writer actually believes something so stupid, or is it just a clever piece to gull the ignorant and steer the faithful?

It seems however that he is not alone, as he quotes a rabbi that seems to be even more clueless on what it means to be an individual.

There is no “individualism” as that implies a movement or unified belief, there is only the individual. The instant two individuals agree to join in a common goal they become a small “group” and will act according to their agreement for the purposes of that agreement, while not surrendering their individuality in all other areas of their life.

“In this vein, individualism causes destructive behavior because it presumes that what is right for the individual is right for all.”

The entire piece was embarrassingly ignorant and such a distorted opinion of reality, but that quote is exceptional on any stupidity scale.

JohnK April 13, 2011 at 1:57 pm

“In this vein, individualism causes destructive behavior because it presumes that what is right for the individual is right for all.”

What’s the difference between that and “In this vein, collectivism causes destructive behavior because it presumes that some expert can decide what is right for all.”?

Is this guy for real?

vidyohs April 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm

That’s what I am asking, do you think he really believes it or is using the strawman argument to gull the naive and steer the believers?

JohnK April 14, 2011 at 8:24 am

I think he believes it.
People of that mentality will trust an “expert” even when the advice defies all common sense.
Since the average individual does not qualify as an “expert”, they cannot be trusted even to make even the most mundane decisions. This of course ignores the fact that nobody is more of an expert in an individual’s affairs than that individual.

You must remember that for these people freedom means being free from choice, free from responsibility and free from consequence (as long as you obey).

brotio April 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm
JohnK April 16, 2011 at 9:09 am


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