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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Society & the individual”

In my December 28th, 2007, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I made the case for individualism – a case that you can read beneath the fold.  (For some reason, this column is not available on-line.)

Society & the individual

I argued previously that liberty means the freedom of each adult to do or not do whatever he or she chooses as long as he or she accords the same freedoms to others. The most powerful justification for government in a land of true liberty is to prevent individuals from stepping on the same rights and freedoms of other.

And while no one this side of sociopathy doubts the importance of keeping each of us from infringing willy-nilly on each other’s rights, too many people regard organized infringement to be just fine. Indeed, some call it “progressive.” “Progressives” yearn to control society consciously rather than permit it to be organized spontaneously according to the plans of countless individuals, each adjusting his or her actions toward others constrained by the boundaries of private property rights and equality before the law.

The “spontaneously ordered society” (to steal a phrase from the Nobel economist F.A. Hayek) is what emerges from the ongoing voluntary actions of free men and women. In such a society the individual is the relevant benchmark for evaluating that society’s goodness. If individuals have ample opportunity to flourish — to gain material wealth, to live longer lives, to become better educated, to enjoy a richer range of experiences — the society is good.

Not that each person will take advantage of these opportunities, or even that there will never be some unlucky persons who are denied such opportunities. Perfection is not an appropriate standard by which to judge anything human. But if in a spontaneously ordered society the number or persons who flourish in these ways is larger than in other kinds of society, the correct conclusion is that such a society is good.

Modern “progressives,” though, are enamored with statistical abstractions and categories. They look at society as a physician looks at a human body: as a whole. In the case of a human body, the physician is correct; each of the countless individual cells that make up each body has no mind or purpose of its own. Each cell exists for the body. The health of the cell matters only insofar as its health serves the purpose of keeping the body healthy.

In society, however, each individual does have a mind and purpose of his or her own. Unlike a cell in a human body, an individual person is a moral being with desires, goals, fears, likes, dislikes and (as far as we can tell) free will.

And although each person contributes to the functioning of society, no person exists to serve society.

Society, unlike a human being, has no mind of its own. Society is only the result of many persons each pursuing his own goals. It is neither sentient as is each person nor does it have aspirations.

Unfortunately, though, both language and statistics — sloppily understood and used — often mislead many people into thinking of society as an independent, sentient creature. After all, we speak of society “doing” this and “achieving” that — as in, modern society has eliminated smallpox.

Reflecting upon this statement sensibly, we understand that those who say it mean that some people in modern society — their creativity unleashed by the freedom and resources available in that society — developed inoculations that now protect each of us from getting smallpox. No one really believes that the smallpox inoculation was developed by some super-entity called “society.”

Still, the habit constantly of speaking of society doing, wanting and achieving various things wears away our guard against the false notion that society is a living, breathing, purposeful being.

And the distorted mental images conjured by carelessly interpreted statistics only further this confusion. Consider the simple statistical claim that immigration from Latin America reduces the average level of schooling in the United States. This statement is true; it also sounds ominous.

But a moment of reflection reveals that it’s largely irrelevant. Because immigrants from Latin America are, on average, less schooled than are people born in the U.S., each time a typical immigrant from south of the border comes to the U.S. the average level of schooling in the U.S. falls. My schooling, however, doesn’t fall. Your amount of schooling doesn’t fall. No individual person’s level of schooling is in any way adversely affected by such immigration. The only thing that falls is the statistical average. And yet, obsessively measuring aggregate, society-level statistics frequently masks this and other underlying truths.

Wanting to control “society,” progressives focus on these aggregate statistics and therefore need to control the actions of individuals in order to make their aggregates come out ‘right.’ In contrast, those of us who understand that pain and joy are experienced by individuals and never by society are naturally more reluctant to sacrifice individual freedom on the altar of statistical improvements.

*Donald J. Boudreaux is chairman of the department of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.