Difference and Equality

Individualism is one of those terms which a great many people use in a great many different ways, so it has been with interest that I’ve been reading Individualism and Economic Order by F. A. Hayek. The book is a collection of essays dealing the individualism, its definition and its place in the economic order.

From the first essay, “Individualism: True and False” comes an interesting thought:

Here I may perhaps mention that only because men are in fact unequal can we treat them equally. If all men were completely equal in their gifts and inclinations, we should have to treat them differently in order to achieve any sort of social organization. Fortunately, they are not equal; and it is only owing to this that the differentiation of functions needs not be determined by the arbitrary decision of some organizing will but that, after creating formal equality of the rules applying in the same manner to all, we can leave each individual to find his own level.

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means, as De Tocqueville described it, “a new form of servitude.”
(Individualism and the Economic Order p. 14-15)

This strikes me as touching on the sense in which classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith can still be considered “conservative” in the old sense of the term. Although Burke is commonly accepted by those who argue that classical liberalism is not “truly conservative” as being conservative in his outlook because of his reaction to the French Revolution, he was (like Smith) Whig, though they were Old Whigs, not True Whigs or Country Whigs. Prior to the French Revolution, Burke had been generally supportive of the cause of the colonists in the American Revolution.

Taking Hayek’s point, classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith do not reject the necessary hierarchy of society. Nor do they embrace sudden, transformative social change. As such, they can certainly be seen as conservative. However, they do seek sufficient freedom within society to allow people to “find their own level”, believing that there is a natural hierarchy of ability which will thus result in an ordered society, and a more desirable one than one in which hierarchy comes strictly from birth and rank.

In this sense, the freedom of a classical liberal society creates social order, and a more stable one than the sort that an ancien regime conservatism maintains. Indeed, arguably, at this point in history, it is only this Whig-ish conservatism which is commonly found within society. Ancien regime conservatism has virtually died out.

Entirely different are notions of politics or the human person in which it is held which all people are truly and fully equal — in ability and inclination as well as in human dignity. Such systems would indeed seem to lead quickly to a most undesirable oppression.

18 Responses to Difference and Equality

  • The trouble with “individualism” in rightist (traditionalist or right-liberal) argumentation today is the lack of realization of what Robert Nisbet pointed out in the 50s and Patrick Deenan has been hammering home in recent years: it is an invitation to statism, and an opening for a grave lonliness.
    ( http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=4115 )

    Individualism and personal freedom, which should always be second to virtue as a value, tends to deny a very basic truth that all conservatives must embrace: the absolute and inherent incompatibility between liberty and equality. Left-liberals value the latter, and right-liberals the former. Each is a false human anthropology when out of context. We are products of a particular time and social environment, and that cannot be escaped – which makes family the most foundational unit of the good society.

    The purpose of freedom and liberty is to protect family, material and immaterial.

  • Jonathan,

    Actually the Hayek essay (“Individualism: True and False”) this quotes would be worth your time (it’s fairly short) in that one of the things it seeks to do is arrive at a proper understanding of what individualism means in relation to the classical liberal tradition.

    What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived fromt his view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But it’s basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward and understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them. The next step in the individualistic analysis of society, however, is directed against the reationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.

    I’d be curious at your reaction to it.

  • Is it perhaps too much of an oversimplification to describe the different views of individualism as a means/end dichotomy. Randian and leftists see individualism as an end in and of itself, whereas conservatives/classical liberals merely see it as a means by which to achieve a more just social order.

  • Darwin,

    As I recently pointed out on a different thread, the classical liberalism of the American founders was also balanced by their classical republicanism, which includes an emphasis on virtue and does not shy away from regulating wealth to preserve society.

    I would argue that classical liberalism never created a stable society – other political forces such as aforesaid classical republicanism, or later on labor movements and the Church tempered and balanced it.

    Finally, I would argue that all most all of the classical liberals are gone – that even the vast majority of libertarians are not truly classical liberals. Why? Because I believe anyone defending the right of total, untaxed inheritance today cannot possibly believe in a “natural aristocracy”, a “meritocracy”, or anything other than the perpetuation of oligarchy and plutocracy.

    Except the one libertarian I met as a socialist who said we could strike a bargain – we could tax the hell out of inheritance as long as he could become rich in his lifetime without paying a dime on it. I always thought it was a good idea.

  • Darwin,

    Hayek and Röpke, in their analysis of the “humane economy,” both identify the elevation of individualism as something like “reationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.”

    One problem though, especially for the traditionalist conservative critic (my own politics), is that Hayek’s case for the “free market” (i.e. The Constitution of Liberty) draws very heavily from Hume, A. Ferguson, and Adam Smith. That is not necessarily a red flag (Mill and Bentham would be for sure) but it remains the British, skeptic, empirical tradition. That tradition has both much to admire and quite a lot to deride from the traditionalist perspective.

    Their case rests on the necessary ignorance of human judgement, which is correct (in a civilized society, there is no centrality capable of managing a complex social outgrowth, so a minimal state is best) but also incomplete.

    Hayek, IMO, is relevant at the theoretical level yet less so at the practical level, and this is due to some uncomfortable topics like demographics and population composition. Here my critique would turn Buchananite: specific government policies matter less than the quantities and qualities of populations. Racism and sexism become cheap and lazy charges at that point, yet this is the obvious problem with all shades of individualism at the intersection of public policy – Finland, for instance, is “Finlandly” because of the Finns themselves, not because of philosophy and governmental mechanics.

  • there is no other way toward and understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior

    This is a very good refutation of Randian libertarianism and its incorrect anthropology. Individualism should not mean that subjective action is sacrosanct; it is, instead, a better way to analyze the social outcomes that are obviously the product of so many individual decisions. The temptation is to play identity politics and assume that these social constructs have some nature or form that can be counted on to behave in certain ways… Just to name one example, it would be foolish to assume that all Catholics will act similarly, ceteris paribus.

  • The trouble with “individualism” in rightist (traditionalist or right-liberal) argumentation today is the lack of realization of what Robert Nisbet pointed out in the 50s and Patrick Deenan has been hammering home in recent years: it is an invitation to statism

    Okay, let’s test this. Which part of the globe is more individualistic: the United States, or Europe? Which part is more statist?

  • Blackadder: on a blog discussing the anti-gay marriage vote in NY, a European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues, because we don’t want a situation where people vote to deny other people their rights. He obviously thought that was highly superior to the way we rednecks do things.

    Ironically enough, it is the Left which now embodies the mentality of the ancien regime. In Europe, the dukes and earls have been replaced by the EU elites, because the judgment of the peasants is not to be trusted. And many liberals in this country also put their faith in the elites and the courts and would like us to become more like the Europeans in that respect. The funny thing to me is that it’s basically feudalism presented as cutting edge progressivism.

  • “The funny thing to me is that it’s basically feudalism presented as cutting edge progressivism.”

    On target analysis Donna. Leftist comments about the tea bag party protests reminded me of a British aristocrat looking down his nose and cursing at the American rabble of 1776. The Left has a childlike faith in government by experts with the “proper opinions” amd judges with the “proper opinions”. Voters simply cannot be trusted to elect representatives with the “proper opinions”. That is also why Leftists love treaties to bind what elected representatives can do.

  • European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues, because we don’t want a situation where people vote to deny other people their rights. He obviously thought that was highly superior to the way we rednecks do things.

    Maybe it’s all Providence. Clearly someone like this isn’t a clear enough thinker to understand the virtues inherent in a properly constructed constitutionally limited republic. Its a pity when someone forfeits his ability to shape society for the better and contribute to his own governance, but maybe it’s best that those who would, should.

  • on a blog discussing the anti-gay marriage vote in NY, a European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues

    That’s an interesting argument, or at least it would be if it was remotely true. There’s no supra-national body in Europe telling nations that they have to recognize gay marriage. The issue is decided country by country, and in fact most European countries do not recognize gay marriage.

  • Because I believe anyone defending the right of total, untaxed inheritance today cannot possibly believe in a “natural aristocracy”, a “meritocracy”, or anything other than the perpetuation of oligarchy and plutocracy.

    Clayton Cramer has visited this issue on occasion and (I believe) has some citations to literature. His point: that with some exceptions (the duPonts, for example), families tend to lose their mojo after a few generations and their wealth is dissipated (by alcoholism, failure to earn well, and bad investments, among other things). A sad contemporary example would be Robert Kennedy’s in laws.

    You also would not want to work it so that an able businessman could not provide for his wife or his disabled children.

  • Okay, let’s test this. Which part of the globe is more individualistic: the United States, or Europe? Which part is more statist?

    Europe is more statist. This doesn’t negate though, the point of the first post, and I think ties into the second. A welfare state/statist/collectivist/ect. governmnetal organization “works” much better in a homogeneous society, for reasons explained by Putnam among many others.

    And so one big reason “individualism” as a public ethos is an open pathway to statism is that the “autonomous rights-based individuals” many open border/libertarian types tend to be happy to receive will over time make the country significantly more statist: one glaring example is California in the last three decades.

  • A welfare state/statist/collectivist/ect. governmnetal organization “works” much better in a homogeneous society, for reasons explained by Putnam among many others.

    The evidence isn’t that it works any better, only that it is more popular. I don’t see that as being necessarily a positive.

  • I think we find the first link between individualism and statism in Hobbes. First he shatters organic society and breaks us up into individual atoms, then he reconstitutes us in the body of the Leviathan, the absolute monarchy.

    This is why I object when people compare modern statism to feudalism, calling it “neo-feudalism.” At least in places such as England, the average peasant probably had more freedom certainly than a “worker” under communism. It was the medieval village (and the Church as the provider of social services) that had to be broken up and destroyed so that absolutism and statism could consolidate themselves.

  • The evidence isn’t that it works any better, only that it is more popular. I don’t see that as being necessarily a positive.

    I disagree with you on the evidence, but that’s another argument. Let’s accept this premise: in a homogeneous society (race, ethnicity/culture, religion, language being the most important) a statist system of governance is more popular and nothing else. This is not nothing if that state retains republican or democratic processes….in fact, popularity of large-scale policy is essential to societal harmony and decent, honest governance. Diversity and proximity equals conflict – all across the world, all across time and environment. Does this mean any one person is “lesser” than another? No. It means human populations are different, and (for powerful evolutionary reasons) prefer their “own.”

    Now let us consider a societal opposite. With different (and, by the way, strongly self-segregating populations), and with our incredibly advancing understanding of genetics, the future of social policy could very well be very contentious and ugly, with resentments galore.

    Geoffrey Miller in the current Economist:

    Human geneticists have reached a private crisis of conscience, and it will become public knowledge in 2010. The crisis has depressing health implications and alarming political ones. In a nutshell: the new genetics will reveal much less than hoped about how to cure disease, and much more than feared about human evolution and inequality, including genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and races.

    Uh oh. I just don’t see how it is not obvious that such revelations, in a republican society with democratic processes, an egalitarian ethos, and different populations, is not a toxic mix.

    (And again, let me be clear: I am not saying, nor do I believe, that any one person has less moral worth or inherent human dignity than another.)

  • Joe,

    I guess I see two issues with your characterization of the approach that classical liberals would/should take to inheritance:

    1) I’m not aware the Burke, Smith, etc. in any way endorsed a confiscatory approach to inheritance.

    2) The desire to be able to pass on an inheritance does not necessarily stem from an opposition to meritocracy (some idea that because your parents were rich you deserve to be rich regardless of your own abilities) but rather from self interest in the sense the classical liberals talked about it. When Smith talks about “self-interest” he means no so much “selfishness” or “what I want for me, myself” but rather “what I, myself, want to do with my goods”. One of the very natural things that people desire (and work to achieve) is the ability to take good care of their loved ones and of other causes or institutions they care about. In this sense, wanting have the fruits of one’s labor result in financial support for one’s children, one’s church, etc. would all be examples of “selt interest” in the classical liberal sense.

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