Methodological individualism is the method of social study which realizes that groups and collectives have no existence outside of the actions of specific individuals. An understanding of collectives must begin with an understanding of individual action. Yet this does not deny the existence or significance of groups and collectives. As Mises argues,

“Nobody ventures to deny that nations, states, municipalities, parties, religious communities, are real factors determining the course of human events. Methodological individualism, far from contesting the significance of such collective wholes, considers it as one of its main tasks to describe and to analyze their becoming and their disappearing, their changing structures, and their operation. And it chooses the only method fitted to solve this problem satisfactorily.”

Still, saying these concepts exist isn’t collectivist or anti-individualist. But “social phenomena” are emergent properties of the actions of individuals. The groups themselves don’t act, thus, neither does “society.” Methodological individualism is the opposite of collectivism. It is a refusal to engage in collectivist analysis which I aim to address.

Cooperation =/= Collectivism

One flaw the advocate of collectivism (or someone who may be unfamiliar with its differences with individualism) will argue is that when, for instance, you are employed by a firm, help with a project, or participate in voluntary transactions, that collectivism is being engaged in. This is conflating cooperation with collectivism. Before we continue, we will look at the ambiguous motte and bailey in use. For those who are unfamiliar with a motte and bailey, in medieval Europe, the bailey referred to the fields: productive, happy, and where you wanted to be, but not easily defensible. The motte was a tower in the middle of the fields: dark, dank, and soulless, but a good place to retreat to in the event of an attack on the bailey. The metaphor suggests that where you want to be is collectivism as its proponent wants the subjugation which necessarily arises from collectivism— the bailey. But that’s not easily defensible, so when necessary they retreat to the motte of “but collectivism is just cooperation.” If they can get people to back off by taking that defensible position, they’ll go back to the “will of the people” bailey (just one example; there could be any number of other collectivist credos) bailey where they wanted to be all along which also allows their counterpart to be more amenable to other ideas being smuggled in.

So for instance:

X: “You engage in collectivism when you work at a job, participate in exchange, or help friends out. Don’t you like to cooperate?”

Y: “Of course I do.”

X: “Ok, good. Now, how about those selfish people who don’t cooperate…”

It’s a pretty silly tactic, but the Left (statist or otherwise) uses it constantly with concepts such as feminism, anti-capitalism, unions, and so on.

So, is cooperation the same as collectivism? No. The difference between cooperation and collectivism is in the definitions. Cooperation says, “We have a common goal, let’s achieve it together.” Collectivization says, “Lets band together, then find goals to achieve”. The latter is cancerous — once one goal ends, it will metastasize in a greater capacity than its original conception. It determines goals collectively, meaning that they’re not necessarily shared, but that some people are to just go along anyway for the sake of the collective. Cooperation is where you and I voluntarily agree to undertake a particular action together to pursue a particular end. Collectivism is where you and I don’t necessarily voluntarily agree to undertake a particular action to pursue a particular end, but Billy thinks that end is desirable, claims it will be for the greater good, and therefore subjugates the rest of us to [partake] engage, or have some stake, in that action. Cooperation is when multiple individuals share a desire for the same ends but negotiate the means. If all humans shared the same ends, goals, and ideals then cooperation would be synonymous with collectivism. The problem is: we don’t. We can make an individual decision to align ourselves with others where it may benefit us directly. Collectivism aims to decide for the individual what is best or what ends, goals, and ideals they should strive for and insists everyone comes along for the ride because it’s for the best according to their “objective” definition of what’s best for everyone. Collectivism eclipses individuality, whereas cooperation utilizes it. Think of the division of labor. Every person who plays a part in the building of a skyscraper cooperates or it can’t get done. But no one’s pretending there aren’t individual differences between the architect and the foreman and the laborer.

Despite these objections, there are those that would argue that interactions in the market are forms of collectivism since what happens in the market is “collectively” determined. As an example, in his piece “Individualism, Collectivism, and Other Murky Labels,” Sheldon Richman invokes Austrian Economics to argue this point to ask if libertarians are socialists or collectivists. Sheldon states,

“The Austrian tradition in economics has long emphasized that the chief advantage of the market process over central decision-making lies in the market’s embodiment of a social, or collective, intelligence that is denied to any individual or small subgroup. This doesn’t mean that a collective mind literally emerges, only that the social process and the price system combine in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The market “knows” more than any of us do alone. (The same point can be made for a broader context. The philosopher Wittgenstein argued that language itself, without which there is little or no thought, is essentially social.)

Further, Ludwig von Mises often emphasized that in a freed market, consumers collectively, not individual business people, determine who owns the means of production and what will be produced. “

While I commend Sheldon for invoking the Austrian School of Economics, I would still argue that this is a misinterpretation. The difference between the two has to do with when action actually occurs. In market transactions the individual acts and the outcome, or the side effect, is the manifestation of demand. When collectives “act”, the actual action (by individuals) does not occur until some sort of consensus (rarely unanimous) has been reached. The ironic thing is that they do this because they think they can engineer a solution (assuming they have good intentions) that meets society’s demands, but the side effect of the actions of free individuals can naturally accomplish this vastly better than any collective can. Through the lens of methodological individualism we can see that the focus is on individual actors driving prices. While the market as a collective helps establish prices, it’s the marginal decisions of individuals that matter in the end. The marginal decisions to buy or sell, to choose between definite amounts of various goods, all occur on an individual scale.

The key distinction is between actions and outcomes, causes and effects. Buying and selling are actions, and collectively play a causal role in the outcome, the effect: prices. When individuals collectively “determine” things like prices, that’s not an action performed by either the individual or the group, it’s an outcome of the actions of (often) large numbers of individuals. You buy according to your preferences. I buy according to mine. Sellers sell according to theirs, and through all these actions of these individuals a price emerges, or somewhat less precisely “is determined.”

We As a Society

You may be familiar with the phrases “we as a society,” “for the good of the people,” or, “for the common good.” Not too long ago I was in a discussion with a leftist where I asked for a workable definition of the term “social justice.” I was told one of the “tenets” of “social justice” is that it is about getting to society what it deserves to the largest extent. What does “society deserve”? If I am a killer in a society of ten, and the other nine individuals are saints, what does “society deserve”? My aim isn’t to discuss the “concept” of “social justice” (although “what society deserves” will be addressed as we continue), but to use it as an example for my overall point that there are reasons leftist ideologies (including but not limited to left-libertarianism) and collectivist rhetoric go together like peas and carrots. These ideas can’t even be discussed without implicitly and illegitimately assigning identities to imaginary entities. So that’s how they’re discussed, and when they’re implemented, they necessarily subjugate real individuals, real human beings, to the “interests” of these fictional collectives such as “society.”

Mises said, “Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.” A common objection to this is that although true, individuals are components of society and other groups; you can’t have groups without individuals and a lot of the time individuals depend on groups to some extent. Yet, this doesn’t add anything to what we already know. I’m made up of cells, but things that are true of a cell are usually not true of me, and what’s true of me isn’t usually true of a cell. My cells don’t think, and I don’t have a bilipid membrane layer or self-replicate, and on and on. The properties of the members of a group aren’t also properties of the group. It’s a fallacy to apply the same attributes to individuals and groups. For instance, individuals have height, groups have average height. What’s the average height of Bob Smith? To ask this question makes no sense. What color eyes did the audience at the Kentucky Derby have? This also makes no sense. What color is the U.S.’s shirt? What species is the ecosystem? If you’re a serial killer and I’m an angel, and you and I make up society, what do we as a society deserve? What do we as a society even want?

Just because you can aggregate the individual attributes to arrive at some single statistical representation of all the attributes does not mean the group has that attribute. A collectivist may write this off as a bad comparison because the things that are true of individuals who are mutually involved in a group usually have some similarities or enough in order to tolerate each other in close quarters or lots of communication. Hence why they are in the group to begin with. Yet, this objection is about groups of people who have come together deliberately for some specific reason, in which case the properties that can be accurately applied to the group are likely unanimous among its members. “Society” is not such a group, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any unanimously shared beliefs or values among its members.

Let’s play devil’s advocate and take it one step further. Assume the property of a given group is that it’s anti-capitalist. You’d expect the group members to also be anti-capitalist, right? Maybe not in completely the same ways but similar enough to where it works for the group’s purpose. This is proof that groups can have the same attributes as individual members of the group, correct? This is fallacious because if all members of a group are anti-capitalist, you can get away with referring to the group as anti-capitalist without facing any important objections. If 10 people form a group and 8 of them are anti-capitalist, the group is not, meaningfully speaking, anti-capitalist. If they’re all anti-capitalist they’re all anti-capitalist. Calling the group anti-capitalist, you can get away with because of the unanimity, but collectivists are never talking about unanimity. There’s not much to talk about if everybody is anti-capitalist. They’re all, individually, anti-capitalist. It’s an anti-capitalist group. Fine. That’s not where the problems with collectivism come in. They come in when individuals #9 and #10 claim, “I want to keep my stuff,” but the others are all, “Sorry we’re an anti-capitalist group.” Putting away devil’s advocacy, in most groups there will be little or no unanimity. Things may instead be generally accepted, but this we’ve already covered. It’s even worse for the collectivist [comes off flawed]. Making large group trends better known has nothing to do with calling a group a certain characteristic or deciding what it deserves.

 

When the group gets very large, you figure the complexity and ambiguity of it all force us to admit collectivist claims. They don’t. Mises addresses this in Human Action. He states,

“It is illusory to believe that it is possible to visualize collective wholes. They are never visible; their cognition is always the outcome of the understanding of the meaning which acting men attribute to their acts. We can see a crowd, i.e., a multitude of people. Whether this crowd is a mere gathering or a mass (in the sense in which this term is used in contemporary psychology) or an organized body or any other kind of social entity is a question which can only be answered by understanding the meaning which they themselves attach to their presence. And this meaning is always the meaning of individuals.”

Collectivists think larger groups have properties smaller ones don’t, or at least they pretend to when you use smaller groups to point out collectivism’s problems. I’ll use the following example: If Bob and I think you should be killed, we constitute a majority. Should the will of the group be carried out? When you’re talking about a small group, collectivist fallacies are easily exposed. How is the question, “If two people subjugate one individual” any more or less arbitrary than, “If 7.5 billion people choose to subjugate one individual”? At what point does a group stop being a group and become “society”? Where there is a difference, you can point to the difference and it’s not a mystical thing. For example, there’s an important difference between 10 and a million people if you’re analyzing how an advantageous gene propagates through a population, but you’re not invoking imaginary collectives when you do that. “Small groups” have the same set of issues as society. A business or group of friends also can, but they’re different. It’s not a circle drawn around an arbitrarily selected group of people. It’s a group of individuals who have come together on purpose and pooled their resources to collaborate in the service of a shared goal. The owners (if there’s more than one) for instance, have well-aligned interests, as is often the case, so it can appear as though “the company” or “the group” is acting, but it’s still only individuals. Individuals vote on the board, individuals make executive decisions, individuals carry out those instructions. When you go out and buy a gallon of whole milk, that isn’t society. Collectivism would be if your friend said that’s actually society going out for a milk, and society wants skim.

 

In his book, “Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics”, Carl Menger is critical of the view that actions are the results of fictitious collectives, such as groups or “society”. According to Menger, collectives qua collectives are nonexistent, thus, only individuals exist and are motivated by concepts they value individually. Indeed, apart from the ideological messes collectivism gets you into, it is a logical fallacy. A fallacy necessary to reach certain usually-leftist conclusions. It always turns out to be about the individual, which is the only social unit that acts, that has wants and needs, that enjoys justice or suffers injustice, that even exists in any analytically useful sense.

 

 

Further reading:

 

Human Action Part 1, Chapter II.
THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL PROBLEMS OF THE SCIENCES OF HUMAN ACTION; Section 4. The Principle of Methodological Individualism 
by Ludwig von Mises

Human Action  Part 2, Chapter VIII. HUMAN SOCIETY; Section 2. A Critique of the Holistic and Metaphysical View of Society by Ludwig von Mises

 

Methodological Individualism by Joseph Schumpeter[PDF]

Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics by Carl Menger[PDF]