Freeman Essay #89: “Individualism and Intelligence”

by Don Boudreaux on February 17, 2018

in Complexity & Emergence, Freeman, Hubris and humility

My column in the May 2003 Freeman is devoted to explaining that each individual in modern society benefits from the on-going use of an amount of knowledge that is not possessed by him or her – and more: an amount of knowledge that cannot possibly even begin to be possessed by any single mind or begin to be comprehended by a congress of Einsteins equipped with 23rd-century computer technology. My column is below the fold.

How intelligent are human beings?

This short question is complex. Of course, intelligence exists in many varieties. A math genius might believe in the predictive powers of Tarot cards; a great novelist might stumble over the simplest exercise in logic; a stellar manager might be ignorant of literature.

While interesting, this particular complexity afflicting the question of human intelligence is not my concern here. I want to highlight a deeper issue: each of us, standing alone, is surprisingly ignorant and prone to great foolishness.

This assertion might sound shocking coming from an arch-individualist such as me. But whatever shock there is springs from a failure to understand individualism. To explore the question of human intelligence, then, requires that we first understand individualism.

Individualism, as used here, is a political philosophy. It is a set of truths about the nature of society and a set of precepts on the proper relationships between government and individuals. Individualism denies that society is distinct from the individuals who comprise it. It denies the existence of a “general will.” It recognizes that aggregates used to discuss society—such as “GDP,” “the American people,” or “the city of Chicago”—result exclusively from the interplay of the choices and actions of multitudes of individuals. These aggregates have no reality other than that which is created by each of the millions of individuals interacting with each other in ways too complex to describe in words.

Individualism denies that government accurately reflects “the people’s” wishes—because individualism denies that “the people,” as a group, is a conscious entity that can wish. I have wishes; my wife has wishes; my neighbor has wishes. Some wishes might be shared universally. Others might conflict intensely. But even wishes that are shared by everyone are the wishes of unique individuals. No creature distinct from individuals has these wishes.

One consequence of this perspective is the individualist’s suspicion of using government to force some people to do the bidding of others. The individualist rejects the romantic myth that some people are miraculously transformed by the state into something godlike that can discern and integrate the innumerable bits of knowledge dispersed among millions of human beings. In turn, the individualist is hostile to attempts to subjugate any person to any such allegedly “higher” entity.

Individualism is not a belief that everyone is, or seeks to be, isolated like an island from others. Individualists recognize the happy fact that each of us continually depends on countless other people—our family, friends, colleagues, and the literally hundreds of millions of strangers around the world whose creativity and efforts result in the goods, services, and ideas that are our prosperity.

The individualist understands that society grows organically only from the interplay of each person’s choices and actions with those of millions of other people, and that coercion exercised by a central authority stymies this growth.

Human Intelligence

The individualist keenly appreciates the limits of each individual’s knowledge. And in addition to being mindful of the importance of social cooperation, he is mindful also that:

  • Cooperation cannot be coerced;
  • Cooperation often involves creativity (for example, the entrepreneur’s design of a better mousetrap to offer for sale);
  • Because creativity is involved, and also because each individual possesses a unique but limited assortment of knowledge, the results of cooperation cannot be known in advance;
  • Each individual, being quite ignorant, is prone to misperception and error; thus, the discovery of truth—the process of distinguishing correct from mistaken ideas—requires continual trial and error; and
  • When people are free to cooperate, subject only to the necessity of persuading others to cooperate with them, the resulting social order is one in which everyone benefits from the unique bits of knowledge that each of the millions of other people brings to market relationships; through the market, I benefit from the unique knowledge of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker, even though I haven’t the foggiest idea how each does what he does.

Thus the individualist reflects on how extraordinarily small is the amount of knowledge that any one person possesses, but how extraordinarily large is the amount of knowledge possessed only by others that nevertheless serves him. This reflection humbles the individualist. He realizes that he knows so very little. He understands how ludicrous it is for any person, or any group of people formed into any sort of committee, to fancy that he or they can comprehend the colossal details that are at the heart of even the most mundane market arrangements.

The individualist cannot help but laugh at the vanity of those who imagine that they can out-guess or out-plan the market, for that would be to out-guess or to out-plan hundreds of millions of people, each with unique bits of knowledge.

The individualist knows that a person truly isolated from a society of free men and women would be not only desperately poor, but also the possessor of the most irrational fears and misapprehensions.

Reflect on some common bit of knowledge—say, that the earth is round or that microscopic organisms can kill human beings. To us these facts seem obvious. But they are not obvious. For millennium upon millennium most people had no inkling of them. And you, dear reader, know these facts not because you discovered them, but rather because countless other people thought creatively and rationally and, by sharing their ideas with others, subjected their ideas to evaluation and refinement. This interaction of free and rational individuals is what discovered and confirmed these facts.

The earth looks flat to me, and I’ve never personally seen bacteria. Yet I know that the earth is round and that bacteria exist and many are dangerous. I benefit from this knowledge, which is not of my own discovery. And as I reflect on these benefits, I realize that almost everything I know was discovered by others. It’s knowledge that I, left alone for a billion years with a powerful computer, could never hope to discover on my own.

Alone I am ignorant and benighted; as a participant in a market society, I am informed and enlightened. I am informed and enlightened by the individual efforts of countless persons who have creatively used their freedom and their capacity for rational thought.


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