Individualism and Intelligence

By Boudreaux, Donald J. | Ideas on Liberty, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Individualism and Intelligence

Boudreaux, Donald J., Ideas on Liberty

How intelligent are human beings?

This short question is complex. Of course, intelligence exists in many varieties. A math genius might believe in the predictive powers of Tarot cards; a great novelist might stumble over the simplest exercise in logic; a stellar manager might be ignorant of literature.

While interesting, this particular complexity afflicting the question of human intelligence is not my concern here. I want to highlight a deeper issue: each of us, standing alone, is surprisingly ignorant and prone to great foolishness.

This assertion might sound shocking coming from an arch-individualist such as me. But whatever shock there is springs from a failure to understand individualism. To explore the question of human intelligence, then, requires that we first understand individualism.

Individualism, as used here, is a political philosophy. It is a set of truths about the nature of society and a set of precepts on the proper relationships between government and individuals. Individualism denies that society is distinct from the individuals who comprise it. It denies the existence of a "general will." It recognizes that aggregates used to discuss society-such as "GDP," "the American people," or "the city of Chicago"-result exclusively from the interplay of the choices and actions of multitudes of individuals. These aggregates have no reality other than that which is created by each of the millions of individuals interacting with each other in ways too complex to describe in words.

Individualism denies that government accurately reflects "the people's" wishesbecause individualism denies that "the people," as a group, is a conscious entity that can wish. I have wishes; my wife has wishes; my neighbor has wishes. Some wishes might be shared universally. Others might conflict intensely. But even wishes that are shared by everyone are the wishes of unique individuals. No creature distinct from individuals has these wishes.

One consequence of this perspective is the individualist's suspicion of using government to force some people to do the bidding of others. The individualist rejects the romantic myth that some people are miraculously transformed by the state into something godlike that can discern and integrate the innumerable bits of knowledge dispersed among millions of human beings. In turn, the individualist is hostile to attempts to subjugate any person to any such allegedly "higher" entity.

Individualism is not a belief that everyone is, or seeks to be, isolated like an island from others. Individualists recognize the happy fact that each of us continually depends on countless other people-our family, friends, colleagues, and the literally hundreds of millions of strangers around the world whose creativity and efforts result in the goods, services, and ideas that are our prosperity.

The individualist understands that society grows organically only from the interplay of each person's choices and actions with those of millions of other people, and that coercion exercised by a central authority stymies this growth.

Human Intelligence

The individualist keenly appreciates the limits of each individual's knowledge. And in addition to being mindful of the importance of social cooperation, he is mindful also that:

* Cooperation cannot be coerced;

* Cooperation often involves creativity (for example, the entrepreneur's design of a better mousetrap to offer for sale);

* Because creativity is involved, and also because each individual possesses a unique but limited assortment of knowledge, the results of cooperation cannot be known in advance;

* Each individual, being quite ignorant, is prone to misperception and error; thus, the discovery of truth-the process of distinguishing correct from mistaken ideas-requires continual trial and error; and

* When people are free to cooperate, subject only to the necessity of persuading others to cooperate with them, the resulting social order is one in which everyone benefits from the unique bits of knowledge that each of the millions of other people brings to market relationships; through the market, I benefit from the unique knowledge of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker, even though I haven't the foggiest idea how each does what he does.

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