"Atomistic Individualism": Anatomy of a Smear

By Machan, Tibor R. | Ideas on Liberty, October 2003 | Go to article overview

"Atomistic Individualism": Anatomy of a Smear


Machan, Tibor R., Ideas on Liberty


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 selfsufficient 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.

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