Mises Daily Articles

Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
Twitter icon
Home | Mises Library | What We Mean by Individualism

What We Mean by Individualism

  • Galapagos_hawk.jpg

Tags Philosophy and Methodology

07/15/2005Adam Martin

Brad Stone recently delivered a lecture at the Mises Institute concerning the relevance of the work of Robert Nisbet to the libertarian movement (audio | video). He argued that it is important for libertarians to also be "communitarians," defending traditional social institutions from the state. He cautioned against the valorization of the individual and any position that acknowledges only individual rights as ideas that lend themselves to a growth in state power.

Overall, the presentation was insightful. The importance of families and other such small communities ("subsidiary institutions" in the language of Catholic social teaching) should be a topic of concern to libertarians, and precisely for some of the reasons that Dr. Stone identified, such as the provision of services often connected to the modern welfare state. The introduction to Nisbet was also welcome as a point of intellectual history in light of the connection between the Old Right and the modern Austro-libertarian movement.1

However, I do have two bones to pick with Dr. Stone's presentation. In raising them, I do not mean to single him out: these are pandemic confusions on the part of conservatives that have plagued their interpretations of the libertarian movement. The first is a minor quibble, in that it is not really a point of disagreement. I merely wish to point out that Austro-libertarians have, in fact, consistently defended the importance of subsidiary institutions.2 The second has to do with the conservative brouhaha over individualism.

The real root of many disagreements between libertarians and other conservative thinkers centers around the term "individualism," which has become a four-letter word in the political mainstream from left to right. Those who identify themselves as individualists or focus on individuals are accused of denying man's social nature (the right-wing criticism) or ignoring the vast, impersonal forces of society (the left-wing criticism). Since this piece is a plea to conservatives, it is only the first objection that I would like to concern myself with.

The canons of conservative orthodoxy overflow with aspersions cast on libertarians on the grounds that they are too individualistic. If they are in a particularly vilifying mood, the modifier "atomistic" is appended, by which the conservatives hope to establish that the individualist ethos posits an infinite gap between one man and another. Other invectives against libertarianism (accusations of libertinism, materialism, utopianism, egoism, etc.) are often rooted in the misunderstanding concerning the individual. Russell Kirk (an ardent conservative anti-libertarian) offers the following commentary on the relationship between the two groups:

The conservative regards the libertarian as impious, in the sense of the old Roman pietas: that is, the libertarian does not venerate ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or his country, or the immortal spark in his fellow men. The cosmos of the libertarian is an arid loveless realm, a "round prison." "I am, and none else beside me," says the libertarian. "We are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet," replies the conservative, in the phrases of Marcus Aurelius.3

There are two senses in which Austro-libertarians consider themselves individualists: metaphysically and morally, with the latter being drawn from the former. A proper understanding of these senses immediately dispels the conservative objections to libertarian points.

Metaphysical individualism means that man is metaphysically prior to any social network, be it a subsidiary institution such as the family or a whole nation. That is, social phenomena have no existence apart from the actions of the individuals who participate in them. Subsidiary institutions are real, but they are real in a derivative sense: it is only because the individual man has a social nature that the institutions have being at all.

This point is often confused for a historical one, especially in economic and political theorizing. It is an obvious myth that man's "original condition" is isolation; the mere fact of his biological reproduction is enough to dispel this fantasy.4 The economic story of Robinson Crusoe, however, is not a story about historically isolated man, but rather one about metaphysically distinct man, who, because he has free will, must take the center stage in any social theorizing. This is the root cause of the Austrian adherence to methodological individualism, which recognizes man's action as the cause of social institutions and thus relates all social phenomena back to the necessary formal structure of the choices of individuals.

The other sense in which Austro-libertarians are individualists is in the moral sense. It is man that has a nature, not mankind; thus, for any natural law ethic man must be the measuring stick. Institutions can be in accord or discord with this nature; the libertarian ethical claim is that any institution characterized by coercive action is unnatural with regards to man. In like manner, Austro-libertarians judge all institutions by way of individual man.

Put another way, only man is a moral agent. Only the individual can choose, and to that extent any coherent notion of moral evil must be traced back to the choice of an individual man. Since man is the morally relevant unit, all legitimate moral claims, including those about the value of subsidiary institutions, must be phrased so as to be individually meaningful. If not by looking to the individual, how does one determine in the first place that home and hearth is superior to hammer and sickle?

Moral individualism is not the same thing as egoism; even if one believes in absolute altruism towards one's fellows, those fellows must be recognized in their value as individuals rather than as an amorphous social blob. The precondition for treating another person as a person is to recognize his individual worth. The deadly flaw of collectivism is to replace concern for man with concern for mankind, which is nothing but a pattern resulting from the actions of individual man. This shift of focus can only come at the expense of the welfare of individual men.

It is always in this light that the value of subsidiary institutions should be understood. Voluntary associations are important not for their own sake, but because they fulfill man's nature. True partnership and community can only come about between distinct individuals. When we fight for our families, we must not fight for family in the abstract but for the flesh and blood people that we know and love. The efforts of those in the conservative movement to pit the community against the individual as opposing values is thus theoretically baseless; in an attempt to emphasize man's social nature they forget that such a nature must inhere in a man.

There are also important practical considerations at stake; I will focus on one. As long as we live in the shadow of bureaucratization and interventionism, any attempt to understand subsidiary institutions apart from the nature of the individual person runs the risk of confusing natural and unnatural characteristics of those institutions. Institutions that have traditionally fulfilled man's nature can become distorted by government action, and so failing to root one's appreciation of them in an understanding of man qua man can lead to the entrenchment of these perversions. This cuts right to the heart of the institution nearest and dearest to the hearts of conservatives, the family:

The welfare state also amounts to a direct assault on the extended family. Present-day conservatives place great emphasis on the nuclear family, but it is the extended family, consisting of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, that is far more capable of providing a whole variety of useful and desirable functions and of lending health and vitality to the whole.5

As a result of state action, our very conception of what constitutes a family has become twisted into something that is less noble than the natural form of the family that coincides with personal liberty. This is why Austro-libertarians are so adamant that only individuals have rights. Institutions have no rights because they can take forms contrary to man's nature6; the individualist proviso is that they thus must be defended only insofar as they are in accord with that nature.

Making subsidiary institutions into ends in themselves has been a disaster for the conservative movement. Neoconservative politicians have readily grasped at the opportunity to declare themselves pro-family; the result is not the flourishing of family, but rather its transformation into an instrument of state control that threatens both the natural institution of the extended family and the dignity of the individual.7

Only the individualist and consistent anti-statist position can effectively safeguard subsidiary institutions from government's pernicious influence, for it is only the individualist that recognizes that the source of these institutions is the free exercise of human nature which the state is always and everywhere the enemy of. It is on government's watch that the natural institution of marriage has become as flimsy as paper,8 and yet it is the conservative movement that has the audacity to hand the state more power over this sacred bond. They have left the fox to guard the henhouse.

Being attentive to subsidiary institutions is a valuable exercise for the libertarian; the insight into them is an insight into man. Without considering these institutions, the case against the state is incomplete on individualist terms, in that a key part of man's nature has been ignored. However, we must never forget that they are always relative to the individual man, both metaphysically and morally. It is only in light of these two senses of individualism that the proper scope and function of subsidiary institutions can be understood. Individualists, in short, are the real communitarians.


  • 1. See, for instance, Lew Rockwell's "What I Learned from Paleoism" in which Nisbet is explicitly mentioned.
  • 2. Among a cornucopia of other potential examples, see, for one, Allan Carlson, "What Has Government Done to Our Families?"
  • 3. Russell Kirk, Redeeming the Time (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996) pp. 281–2.
  • 4. Austrians do sometimes posit that man is historically prior to society, but by this they mean that man is historically prior to the extensive division of labor that gives rise to societies beyond the scope of a small tribe. That is, man is historically prior to a social network in the technical sense of the "social," not the common sense of any interpersonal relationship.
  • 5. Thomas Woods, The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005) p. 148.
  • 6. Or, happily, they can evolve in their forms into something that fulfills man's nature to a greater extent.
  • 7. On the neoconservative movement's sellout to interventionism, see Lew Rockwell's "The Reality of Red-State Fascism."
  • 8. Frank van Dun, "Substance and Shadow"
Image source: commons.wikimedia.org
Shield icon interview