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I Am Indeed a Radical Individualist

Keith S. writes that he reads Café Hayek "to see how [classical liberals / libertarians] think." But Keith seldom agrees because he is "not as infatuated with radical individualism as" he finds Russ Roberts and me to be.

Keith raises an important point. Those of us who applaud the market’s success at raising living standards – and who are skeptical of centralized power, regardless of its motive – are typically described as ‘individualists,’ and sometimes even as ‘radical’ ones.

There’s much truth in this description. Analytically, good economists trace all observed outcomes back to individual actions. While outcomes often are unintended – even unliked – by those individuals whose choices and actions bring them about, the fact that only individuals evaluate, choose, and act is one that no respectable social scientist ever loses sight of.

Adhering to methodological individualism, however, in no way requires analysts to deny that humans are highly social beings, each of whom depends enormously upon others and is inevitably influenced by others’ actions, words, smiles, frowns, offers of carrots, and threats with sticks.

I myself regard Leonard Read’s essay I, Pencil to be among the single most important pieces of wisdom ever penned – and its message emphatically is how very deeply each of us depends upon others. Indeed, each of us would surely not exist were it not for each of our abilities to tap into the talents of millions of other people – and for their abilities to tap into each of our talents – all in peaceful, mutually gainful ways.

But I don’t shy away from the label "radical individualist" if it is understood properly – by which I mean:

I, a radical individualist, —

– put no faith in the notion that Jones knows better than Smith what’s best for Smith, and that Smith knows better than Jones what’s best for Jones;

– deny that a dozen or a hundred or a thousand Jones know better than Smith what’s best for Smith;

– have no interest in saving the souls of strangers, and only limited interest in saving the souls of people I know and love;

– am quick to anger whenever I encounter any stranger trying to save my soul;

– cherish the freedom of each adult to do as he pleases so long as he accords all others the same courtesy;

– have good reason to believe that each of us acts more responsibly when we attend to our own business than when we attend to the business of others;

– retch at the very thought of being part of any mythical collective consciousness, or of being obliged or even expected to act as if some larger, collective consciousness has a claim on me and my affections.

In short, I – a radical individualist – find no romance in local or national collectives or in the state. To fancy the first as real, or the second as some sort of transcendent expression of people’s hopes and dreams, is to fall victim to vile abstractions.  These abstractions perhaps afford some people temporary false comfort, but over the long-run they inevitably weaken the true fabric that alone gives real meaning to the term "human society": the voluntary market order.