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

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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