Friday, December 3, 2010

Individualism and force

I think I can summarize Hayek's individualism as follows.

There is a false kind of individualism which tells us that we can be free of all force. Taken literally, of course, this is just silly. We will never be free of the force of gravity, or any of the natural forces acting on our bodies at all times. Yet we are tempted to think that what is true of natural forces is not true of cultural forces. We think that individuals can be completely independent of everything except his own will.

This is simply mistaken. In any society, the individual will be subject to pressures from all around him: obviously from people he knows, less obviously yet no less truly from people he doesn't know, and still more indirectly from the institutions which shape his culture. There is no escape from these forces, any more than we can escape the laws of nature.

The only question from a political point of view is, shall the individual be subject to personal or impersonal forces? Shall the individual be coerced into abiding by the will of one or several other individuals, or shall he be free to choose his own path through the set of cultural forces which press against him? By distributing power equally among all individuals, we do not free him from all societal forces, but only from the will of arbitrary rulers.

In traditional terms, we might say man is either subject to the will of other men or subject to the will of God alone. Hayek doesn't see it that way, but it is still helpful to convey the crucial point: the forces to which man must be subject are either personal and arbitrary or impersonal and abstract. These are the only choices.

Americans are largely plagued by false individualism. Our politicians on the Left and on the Right promise us that they will free us from the forces which necessitate difficult choices on our part. The more we buy into this, the more we simply trade impersonal abstract forces for personal ones. Sometimes it's natural to favor personal over impersonal force; impersonal forces are more difficult to understand. But when force is allowed to come from select individuals, then we are all subject to their personal agenda. If these select individuals were divine, this wouldn't be a problem. Since they are not, we will usually suffer for it in the end.

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