Here at https//:centerforindividualism.org, we certainly believe that the emerging technologies of cloud computing, global exchange platforms, artificial intelligence and blockchain can augment individual capabilities and release us from collectivism and dependent relationships on governments and corporations. However, we also recognize that, in the hands of bad actors, there are modern technologies that can be employed for the opposite purpose: the subjection of individuals.
Collectivism is a poison. I have been appalled to see so many of my friends, both on the left and the right, indulging in it.
Over the last several months, I have seen acquaintances and even friends defend tiki torch yielding and self-proclaimed white nationalists. On the other extreme, I have seen friends advocate violence against those who do not agree with them. “We should be punching Nazis,” social media posts have read, without a hint of irony. But the problem with both of these lines of thinking is the dangerous hint of tribalism underlying both.
The second chapter of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is painfully relevant to our modern day.
But whether you advocate some form of socialism or express nationalist sympathies, both are contrary to the spirit of individualism. Both claim to advance freedom but inevitably lead down the road to serfdom.
The Great Utopia
The second chapter of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is painfully relevant to our modern day. While reading, I couldn’t help but wonder what Hayek would have thought about the Charlottesville debacle and all that has unfolded since. This issue of Civil War monuments is almost completely irrelevant here, as I believe the unabashed display of unbridled collectivism would shock Hayek most of all.
“The Great Utopia,” as the chapter is called, refers to the belief that true happiness and equality can only be obtained in a society that sacrifices individual will in favor of “protecting” the collective. For socialists, equality means no one should need to worry about providing life’s necessities. The state provides for all equally and everyone lives happily ever after.
For nationalists or fascists, the same line of thinking occurs, but it is justified by this allegiance and connections to one’s homeland or class or race of people. In order to “secure” the future of your homeland or whatever group you are in support of, you must give your power over to an authority who will ensure lasting security.
And while in 2017 we are still arguing over which flavor of collectivism is better suited for the country, Hayek had in 1944 already laid out the information needed to conclude that neither is compatible with individual liberty.
Collectivism in any form can never represent the interest of the individual.
The Meaning of Freedom
No political or philosophical camp claims to be against freedom. It would be a poor marketing campaign to do so. Instead, each has its own definition of freedom and tailors its context towards that end. But neither represents the interest of the individual.
At the time of writing this book, the threat of nationalism, especially in the form of Nazism, was still very fresh in the minds of the people. Hitler and Mussolini were the perfect caricatures of what “bad guys” were supposed to be. It was for this reason, I believe, that Hayek chose to focus his arguments against collectivism primarily on the socialist agenda.
Everyone at that time recognized that fascism was terrifying; they had been fighting a world war against it. But many found comfort in the false promise of collectivism.
What is so epic, both in Hayek’s day and now, is his ability to call out both groups for being birds of a feather. Since the people already knew what Nazism could reap, it was vital to take this dangerous ideology and compare it with socialism, which was not viewed in quite as negatively a light as nationalism.
“It is rarely remembered now that socialism in its beginnings was frankly authoritarianism,” Hayek points out to a populace that had come to view incremental socialism as a precautionary measure against the authoritarianism of fascism.
Two Roads; One Destination
The historical context in chapter two and its application to today’s political climate seemed to scream and jump out from the page’s of Hayek’s work. How, after all these years, are we still fighting the same fight and participating in the same arguments? Why are we arguing over which brand of collectivism we should choose when the answer seems so apparent?
As Hayek brilliantly sums up in regards to both the socialist and the fascist distortions of the definition of freedom, “Freedom in this sense is, of course, merely another name for power…” So long as either exists, the individual is at risk.
Even those who, at the time, believed socialism could be the answer to fascism were eventually convinced otherwise.
British writer, F.A. Voigt spent years in Europe as a foreign correspondent. After his years of observation, he was forced to conclude that:
Marxism has led to fascism and National Socialism, because, in all essentials, it is Fascism and National Socialism.”
Making a similar point, German writer Peter Drucker wrote:
The complete collapse of the belief in the attainability of freedom and equality through Marxism has forced Russia to travel the same road toward a totalitarian, purely negative, non-economic society unfreedom and inequality which Germany has been following. Not that communism and fascism are essentially the same. Fascism is the stage reached after communism has proved an illusion, and it has proved as much an illusion in Stalinist Russia as in pre-Hitler Germany.
I wish so deeply that my own generation would realize the similarities between the two instead of choosing to unite with one side or the other. History repeats itself. This we know. One of the most beautiful and applicable statues in Washington DC sits outside of the National Archives and reads: “What is past is prologue.” We should understand that this will almost always be the case.
Whether you support one form of tribalism or the next, both undoubtedly end in the same result: a loss of power for the individual.
I have never actually completed F.A. Hayek’s, The Road to Serfdom. I am completely comfortable admitting that. Still, like many who are intrigued with Hayek’s ideas but lack the willpower to read the entire book, I alway list The Road to Serfdom as one of my most influential readings.
To be sure, I had read the few chapters that were assigned to me by my school’s token libertarian political science professor. I assumed I had accurately interpreted its message. The three chapters I read were full of highlights and great quotes about the importance of the individual. But with all the other books out there in the world, why was finishing this one book so important?
It was not until my current mentor called me out on my inability to follow through on one of the most economically relevant books of all time, that I realized that I had robbed myself of an education by not finishing Hayek’s important work.
As a matter of millennial pride and also wanting to reclaim the knowledge I foolishly pushed aside as an undergrad student, I decided to dedicate the next sixteen days to both reading and liveblogging The Road to Serfdom.
The Individual Built the Modern World
Proponents of laissez faire capitalism and libertarian thinkers alike constantly throw around the phrase,” the road to serfdom.” And while most understand its general negativity towards socialism, the phrase is so ingrained in liberty speak that few often take the time to really explore what Hayek was trying to tell us.
In the book’s opening chapter, “The Abandoned Road,” Hayek makes it clear that this path refers to society’s “progressive” rejection of individualism. More importantly, he goes on to describe how this rejection of the sanctity of the individual has, and will continue to have, negative impacts on the society.
For a period of time, the western world had flourished under the 19th-century ideals of free market capitalism. For the first time in history, an individual was allowed to follow his own desired path without the status of his birth holding him back. All he needed was an idea and the ambition needed to make that idea a reality.
As a result, we saw a revolution in thought and an industrial revolution incomparable to anything the world had ever experienced. In fact, even with the advent of the internet, the world has still never progressed quite as dramatically as it did during this laissez faire revolution.
And while this period brought the world the wisdom of Adam Smith and the rebellion of the American Revolution, it did not maintain its momentum of popularity as the 20th century approached.
As Hayek points out:
“We still believe that until quite recently we were governed by what are vaguely called nineteenth-century ideas or the principle of laissez faire…But although until 1931 England and America had followed only slowly on the path which others had led, even by then they had moved so far that only those whose memory goes back to the years before the last war know what a liberal world has been like.”
If in 1944, Hayek thought the world had already forsaken and forgotten true liberalism, I can scarcely imagine what he might say today. And it’s true that he was writing about a period of wartime economic planning both in the US and the UK. Prices and wages were controlled. Censorship was in place. Rationing and quotas governed the production and distribution of all essential goods and services. But even given all this, government consumed a far smaller degree of overall national production than today.
So far removed are we in 2017, that the individual is not even a consideration when contemplating economic policy. In fact, the “greedy” “selfish” individual is often the villain in modern economics, as he seems to always operate contrary to the whims of the collective. Now, terms like “individual mandates” are used to convey each person’s “social responsibility” to care for the collective.
As common as this anti-individualist sentiment has become, it wasn’t always this way. As Hayek reminds us in this opening chapter, the most tremendous strides towards human and economic progress were taken during a time when the individual was allowed to innovate and create without worrying about interference from the state on the grounds of protecting the greater good. But even though the positive implications of a pro-individualist society were proven by the innovations created during that time, society had still been steadily moving away from it.
“We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely of Cobden and Bright, of Adam Smith and Hume, or even of Locke and Milton, but one of the salient characteristics of Western civilizations…Not merely the nineteenth- and eighteenth- century liberalism, but the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides, is progressively relinquished.”
Again, I have to wonder what Hayek might say if he were alive today and around to see how groupthink and collectivism have shaped our modern policies.
This chapter, then, sets the stage. He names liberalism as the system that gave birth to the greatest of human achievements ever seen in history. It was individualism that caused the most spectacular effect. If you understand that–and vast numbers today do not understand this–you are prepared to see how the abandonment of this system and idea leads to not only the unraveling of liberty but even what we call civilization.
So, yes, this book is a warning, not just against one party but all ideological positions that reject individualism for one or another version of the planning state.
Now onward to chapter two!
Friedrich A. Hayek was a 20th century Nobel Laureate in Economics and a noted social philosopher. In 1946, he made a speech at Trinity College, Dublin to which he gave the title Individualism True and False. He was speaking at a time when Europe and much of the world had committed self-destruction through warring governments. He wanted to point out how this could be avoided by future generations. His prescription was the system of Individualism.
The “false” interpretation of Individualism is that it means isolated, self-contained individuals who don’t collaborate. For Hayek, Individualism was a social concept with the potential to result in a better life for all.
Center For Individualism offers this somewhat modernized summary and language, in the strong belief that the underlying ideas are fully applicable today.
1) We all want social order.
Economists distinguish between ends – objectives or goals – and means – the method of achieving the objective. Social order is an objective. None of wants to live in strife or conflict, or feel we are fighting with others for our place in society. At the same time, we all want the opportunity to improve, to succeed, to better our circumstances. The condition for combining social stability with individual opportunity to improve is social order. It’s a desired state
2) But the way we try to achieve it is wrong.
Law and order is the current way: command-and-control by the state, based on the laws the state manufactures through the political process. Unfortunately, under these conditions, a society tends to drift towards the worst forms of state control. Hayek was making this point in 1947, when society was emerging from the ravages of two world wars, which were fights over different kinds of state control – communism, fascism, national socialism and democracy. Today is not so extreme, but the drift is manifest.
3) The alternative is Individualism: a set of general rules that everyone observes without government coercion.
Hayek advocated a system of general rules, equally applicable to all people and intended to be permanent (even if subject to revision with the growth of knowledge). These rules provide an institutional framework within which the decisions as to what to do and how to earn a living are left up to the individuals. Individual initiative is given the widest possible scope and the best opportunity to bring about effective coordination of individual effort.
4) We already know the general rules of Individualism.
The point about these general rules is that they are not prescriptive. They emerge over time as individuals in society collaborate in the marketplace. Hayek did set out a few in his 1947 speech.
- Everyone follows their own individual conscience.
- All property is private property, so I know what’s mine and respect what’s yours. None of it belongs to the state.
- Everyone is free to try their best, to see what they can achieve.
- Each individual contribution is tested and corrected by others.
- No-one is qualified to pass final judgment on others’ capacities or what they can do.
- The remunerations of the efforts of the individual correspond to the utility of the result of his effort to others.
5) An effective competitive market satisfies these conditions.
In the market, the individual takes the risk to find out if the results of their efforts create value for others. Everyone does their best, and the preferences of consumers tell producers what to produce more of and less of.
6) If freedom is granted to all individuals, they will contribute as much as possible to the needs of all others.
Individualism makes institutionalized charity and government welfare unnecessary, and, in fact, harmful to the degree that it interferes with the working of the market. Individuals are collaborative and giving. They focus their efforts on that part of society that they know – family, community, small group; they don’t need to serve the world. This spontaneous collaboration of free people results in great institutions on which civilization arises.
7) The system of Individualism does not require wise or powerful men to run it.
We err when we defer to other individuals or groups who tell us they know better than us what is the right thing to do. Nor is the majority always right. Individualism has no belief in majority decisions. It is a dangerous misconception to accept as true and binding the views of the majority. No-one knows what’s best. Everybody is allowed to try and see what they can do.
8) The political conclusion is that we must limit all coercive and restrictive power.
In order to ensure the benefits of voluntary and spontaneous collaboration, it is important not to place political or governmental restrictions on individuals. The individual should not be subjected to force or coercion by someone who claims to be acting for society as a whole.
9) Individualism is not egalitarian in the modern sense.
Individualism has no reason to try to make people equal. Instead, it treats them equally. Individualism is opposed to limitation on the position an individual may achieve. No-one should have the power to decide another’s status.
10) The spirit of Individualism is humility.
It is hubris to believe that some people or institutions can “run the country” or “plan the economy”. Every individual does their best. We are all awed by the result: mankind has achieved great things that have not been designed or understood by any individual.
Yuval Noah Harari is a currently fashionable author and his book Home Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow has generated some buzz among salon intellectuals.
His subtitle suggest some hubris; he can see the future. Yet this is truly a trivial book claiming a portentous message. The author skates over thin slivers of news headlines, pop technology, biology and historical factlets to arrive at a 100% erroneous conclusion.
The end of individualism?
His portentous message is the end of individualism. The author lays out a proposition that authorities such as churches and kings and governments fooled us into believing that we each have individual identities and that life has individual meaning. Why did they do so? Because they could turn these I-believe-in-myself humans into useful workers in a division of labor economy.
But, according to the author, biology tells us that we do not have individual identity, or free will or an individual self. We are merely bundles and sequences of electrical activity and neuronal responses which are directed by some force or other (he doesn’t tell us what) but certainly not by individual free will. There is no individual. We have been fooled into mis-diagnosing our own consciousness.
And now, the institutions who fooled us are going to change their message. They don’t want us to believe we are individuals any more. Because intelligent, but not conscious, software will be preferred to make all decisions in the future – including telling each of us how to think and what to do. Therefore, it will be useless (or possibly dangerous) to have humans going around thinking they are individuals with free will.
Professor Harari wants us to believe that our existence is meaningless, just a temporary flurry of electrical and biological activity in a repurposable body unit. He replaces the idea of mind and individual consciousness with the idea of an algorithm. We are all just bundles of algorithms.
The augmented, interconnected individual.
But, despite Professor Harari, we do exist. Existence means something, and we experience existence through consciousness and the individual self. The mistake he makes with technology is to believe it will replace human functions. But it won’t. It will augment them. The individual will feel more interconnected, will enjoy more access to knowledge, and will be able to utilize tools to process that knowledge in new and better ways. This technological augmentation of individual capacity, combined with new levels of interconnectivity between people and knowledge and machines, will certainly change the economy and society. But it will lead to a higher level of thriving for individuals rather than to the eclipse of individual experience. Individualism is not a concept thrust upon us by institutions to make us productive. Individualism is the engine of emergent order, and whatever new order emerges from the new era of interconnectivity and intelligent software, individuals will be central to it.
Professor Harari, like many intellectuals, forgets that all of civilization’s advances are the product of individual human behavior, not of collective human design.
Individualism is on trial. Its proponents claim that it encourages social progress and generates economic opportunity. Its accusers contend that it breeds selfishness and economic injustice. But what does the evidence show?
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