Atomistic Individualism: Anatomy of a Smear

There Are Alternatives to Hobbesian Individualism


Contributing Editor Tibor Machan is a professor at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University.

For more than two centuries classical liberalism has irked thinkers both right and left. Hegel, Rousseau, Comte, and of course Karl Marx did a great deal of pen-wielding to combat it, and one of their most potent weapons was to link the ideals of a fully free society to the flaws of scientism and one of its products, subjective or narrow individualism.

Scientism is the view that everything, including human community life, can be understood by treating it as classical physics recommends, namely, by analysis, or breaking it into constituents. This amounts to reducing everything to its smallest components, and once the laws governing those components are identified, the rest easily follows. This has indeed been the method of the natural sciences, but scientism extended the approach to the social sciences too.

The reductive-analytical method for understanding social and political matters was most popular with Thomas Hobbes, the sixteenth-century English philosopher who has been history’s foremost materialist. By Hobbes’s lights people are merely a collection of matter-in-motion, bits of the stuff of which everything else is made, and by understanding the laws of matter, their lives could also be fully understood.

Hobbes’s approach made him something of an individualist, especially when it came to metaphysics. He thought there were no classes or natures of things, including human nature. All that exists, Hobbes said, are bits and pieces of matter that we human beings classify according to our needs and wants. So human nature is merely the classification we have created to serve our interests. Sure, we believe that a human being is a rational animal, but we could classify things by height or weight or color or anything else we chose. It’s all a matter of convention. (Just why only human beings are able to classify things at all, Hobbes doesn’t say. But let’s leave that be for now.)

From this methodological approach one kind of individualism did indeed develop, according to which everything is merely the atoms that comprise it and nothing more. So for Hobbes and his followers, many of them classical economists who favored free markets, a community was a collection of self-sufficient individuals. (The reason this Hobbesian view recommended free markets is that in classical physics when something moves forward, the only thing that will slow it down is some force impeding its progress; so economic advances are arrested when governments interfere with people’s efforts to live, including production and consumption. Ergo: laissez faire.)

A serious problem with Hobbesian individualism is that it eliminates morality from human life. If we are merely propelled by the impersonal forces of nature, then how we act is not really up to us and we are not responsible for anything we do. There are no standards of right and wrong within this framework, except those we happen to lay down because the forces of nature impel us to do so. Although there were certain individualist elements to this view, Hobbes believed that it recommended an absolute monarchy with full authority to run society (except when it turned against the lives of the citizenry).

That Hobbes’s ideas encouraged classical economists and early free-market advocates has been a liability for all who love liberty—and a boon to all who wish to denigrate it. Marx made the most of this and declared liberalism a sort of infantile stage of human social development. He concluded that the fully mature human society would be an anti-individualist collectivist community.

Marx’s ideas had their college try, of course, but they got bogged down, ultimately, because it turns out that human individuality is essential to understanding what a just society must be. When you ignore human individuality you get a top-down authoritarian or totalitarian state that is incapable of figuring out what is good for a human society; this is to be expected when a polity misunderstands human nature and treats us all as if we were members of an ant colony.

Marx’s Mistake

Marx’s extremely costly and inhuman mistake finally came a cropper and confronted us with the question of whether there is alternative to the flawed Hobbesian individualism. Dozens of defenders of the free society have responded in the affirmative. Sadly, their position hasn’t gotten much attention. Instead, we are subjected to endless efforts to salvage collectivism: communitarianism, market socialism, the third way, economic democracy, and so on.

Individualism does require some upgrading by being framed in terms of an objective human nature. Communities are composed of individuals with a definite human nature. A central feature of human nature is individuality—each of us is unique. This kind of being needs a free society to flourish.

This revamped individualism has been a thorn in the sides of those who do not want human beings to be free. In response, they insist that every form of individualism is atomistic and Hobbesian. One writer who has been most energetic in pushing this smear campaign is Amitai Etzioni, most recently in his book The Monochrome Society (Princeton, 2003). Nearly the same theme is found in such works as Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s Knowledge and Politics (Free Press, 1985), Thomas A. Spragens’s The Irony of Liberal Reason (Chicago, 1981), Charles Taylor’s “Atomism” in his Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 1985), and Robert Bellah et al.’s Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Harper & Row, 1985) and The Good Society (Harper & Row, 1991).

These authors continue to insist that liberalism and its conception of community life must be irretrievably wedded to Hobbesian individualism. They refuse to consider that other, formidable versions of individualism and the liberal polity have been developed by such authors as David L. Norton in Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton, 1976), Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New American Library, 1961), Fred D. Miller Jr., Neera K. Badhwar, Eric Mack, Douglas B. Rasmussen, Douglas J. Den Uyl, and many others.

In his new book Etzioni conceives of the classical-liberal idea, in the words of one fan, as the “atomization of modern society.” Nothing new here at all—Herbert Marcuse made his name by condemning modern capitalist society for producing the one-dimensional man, which is pretty much the same idea. And Taylor’s famous piece, “Atomism,” emphatically makes the same point.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with pointing out that one defense of the liberal social order has its limitations, although doing so over and over indicates a certain insecurity. I suggest that these thinkers know that their only chance of selling communitarianism, or some other version of post-Marxist collectivism, is to link liberalism—or libertarianism—to a narrow individualism (which itself is linked to scientism). A more robust version of individualism would not easily yield this result, so such views must be ignored.

Initiators of Action

Individualism in its normative, non-Hobbesian rendition does not insist, incredibly, that human beings are self-sufficient from birth and have no need for communities. Rather, it embodies the notion that individuals are at some basic level initiators of their actions, for good or for ill, and that a just community recognizes this. That’s the reason their rights to life, liberty, and property are protected. This secures for them a sphere of personal jurisdiction, authority, sovereignty—or as Robert Nozick put it, “moral space.”

No community, whether the family, tribe, ethnic group, club, religious order, nation, or humanity at large, has priority over the adult individual’s personal responsibility to decide what to do in his life. Those communities are in fact derivative of the decisions and choices made by innumerable individuals. This is so even while individuals interact with others in the communities of which they are members. (Taylor, following Rousseau and others, would use the phrase “belong to their communities,” assuming that the community is a kind of body of which the individual is but an organ, limb, or cell.)

This approach is contrary to the message of a long line of communitarian, collectivist thinkers who believe, with Jean Starobinski, that “The aptitude for moral life is a gift that the individual receives from the society in which he grows up; hence he is in debt to that society” (New York Review of Books, May 15, 2003). Starobinski reports that “Rousseau treats the life of the citizen as a ‘conditional gift of the state.’” (Exactly how a gift places one in debt to someone is a mystery—genuine gifts aren’t supposed to be given conditionally.)

Two things are repeatedly missed in these musings. First, it is individuals who utter these positions and so betray their own messages of collective identity. Second, because societies are only collections of individuals, any payment of such alleged debts is merely a transfer to other individuals (what about their debts?) rather than to some exalted collectivity.

Auguste Comte went all the way with this line of thought in Cathechisme positiviste: “[The] social point of view. . . cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service. . . This [to live for others], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.”

Had Comte been more forthright, he would have added, “And I’ll be pleased as punch to extract from you the debt you owe to those predecessors, successors, and contemporaries.”

No doubt, with the academic community in the hands of thousands of scholars feeding off the collectivist political order—most universities are state-run and -supported or dependent on taxpayer money—it isn’t likely that the individualist libertarian theme will soon replace the currently popular semi-socialist communitarian alternatives. Still, it is useful, as one encounters repeated efforts to shore up what is ultimately a hopeless, indeed, self-contradictory idea, to stress that “there is no there there.”

Human beings are both individual and social beings. They do not belong to anything or anyone. Their lives are their own, something that obviously rankles those who would gladly seize the chance to run them.

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October 2003

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