Defining Ordered Individualism - Part 1
The fundamental social phenomenon is the division of labor and its counterpart human cooperation.
- Ludwig Von Mises, Human Action, p. 151
Who would ever expect to read such a beautiful statement within a 900+ page treatise on economics? But there it is, at the foundation of capitalism, private property, money, banking and interest rates, is human cooperation. Such a succinct yet meaningful definition of society, the division of labor facilitating human cooperation. That's it. As I read Human Action last year I was struck at how Biblical it sounded. It was like a study of anthropology in a systematic theology course. It wrestled with questions like, what are humans and how do they properly live out life? Then, I thought about the competing ideas of individualism and collectivism. In this one sentence you see the importance of individuals from the comment about the division of labor. You also see how no one person is an island to themselves from the mention of human cooperation. Human beings must be connected to others in meaningful ways and their uniqueness must be valued as well, in order to live a happy and healthy life. Neither individualism nor collectivism by themselves describes the best situation. In order to describe what people need for this healthy and happy life, I came up with the name Ordered Individualism.
To expand upon this idea let me first emphasize the priority of dealing with people individually. We live in society and interact with others everyday in groups like cities, races, and nations. But the group isn't the thing that acts. Groups don't think. Individuals that make up the group do the thinking and acting. Mises makes this point well.
That there are nations, states, and churches, that there is social cooperation under the division of labor, becomes discernible only in the actions of certain individuals. Nobody ever perceived a nation without perceiving its members. In this sense one may say that a social collective comes into being through the actions of individuals. That does not mean that the individual is temporally antecedent. It merely means that definite actions of individuals constitute the collective.
Human Action, p. 43
Schaeffer Agrees With Mises
The comments above, from an atheist economist, mention that collectives don't exist except in the real actions of individual humans. Would a person with a religious world view agree or disagree? Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, makes a similar observation in the beginning of his book How Should We Then Live?
What they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity. It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives. The results of their thought world flow through their fingers from their tongues into the external world. This is true of Michelangelo's chisel, and it is true of a dictator's sword.
Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, p. 19
Like Mises, he acknowledges that people associate in groups and work together to act, by using plural language and talking about corporate actions. But he concludes his statement emphasizing personal lives, fingers, and tongues. Groups don't possess those things. Individuals do. Mises says, "the definite actions of individuals constitute the collective." Schaeffer focuses on the individual because it is only an individual person that thinks.
"As a man thinketh, so is he." is really most profound. An individual is not just the product of the forces around him. He has a mind, an inner world. Then, having thought, a person can bring forth actions into the external world and thus influence it. People are apt to look at the outer theater of action, forgetting the actor who "lives in the mind" and who therefore is the true actor in the external world.
How Should We Then Live?, pp. 19-20
To a believer and an unbeliever, united in sober observation, the group is an abstraction. A person can be influenced by others in a variety of ways but at the end of it all, a man or woman will think, speak, and act in an autonomous way. We must keep our attention on this fact and value the interests of the individual. This is an even more important consideration for those in leadership positions. Inevitably, individuals will want or value different things even to the point where those things are in opposition. To switch emphasis from individual to group opens the door for a leader to suppose there is one common interest which applies to all and includes the compliance of all. That may sound like a reasonable thing to pursue, but the unintended consequences are dangerous.
Rousseau Emphasized Group, Justified Tyranny
Jean Jacques Rousseau, French philosopher 1712-1778, believed in this common interest for all of society and called it the general will. After supposing that majority vote would elucidate what that general will was for a group, he figured out that majority vote was an insufficient determinant. Having a majority vote for a specific law or outcome meant that not everybody was for it. Logic, though incorrectly, led him down a path to explain that the general will did exist even when certain individuals did not agree with it or recognize it. That was Rousseau's grave error, because it was justification for a leader to claim to know what the general will was even if it went against the interests of certain individuals. The general will at that point dissipated into the realm of gnostic higher knowledge. The general will didn't really represent the common good for all people, but an incorporeal spirit which could only be divined by the leader or special council and could be imposed on people for their own good by force. Political force always carries with it the weight of imprisonment and execution. In a twisted way, the government then could cage and kill its subjects for their own good according to its understanding of the general will. Notice how the general will in this case doesn't represent a shift from following the will of an individual to a group? It merely leads the President, dictator, or legislator to substitute its will, for the will of all the people in the nation.
The good news, after the gospel itself, is that this is not how God created people or intended them to interact with one another. In His design the basic unit of society is each person. Yet these all work together to accomplish goals where there is a specific common interest between individuals. It is a spontaneous order. No one person or group needs to control the process. This is simply how humans have been made to behave when left alone. Said another way, this is a society built on Ordered Individualism. This is also what we see in Mises' description of society.
Society is the outcome of conscious and purposeful behavior. This does not mean that individuals have concluded contracts by virtue of which they have founded human society. The actions which have brought about social cooperation and daily bring it about anew do not aim at anything else than cooperation and coadjuvancy with others for the attainment of definite singular ends. The total complex of the mutual relations created by such concerted actions is called society. It substitutes collaboration for the-at least conceivable isolated life of individuals. Society is division of labor and combination of labor. In his capacity as an acting animal man becomes a social animal.
Human Action, p.143
Mises is commenting about the economic aspects of society, and how division of labor is irreplaceable since it is the mechanism by which mankind cooperates to help each other in a material way. Historically this can be observed to occur. That is because internally, humans are made with the desire to live just that way. We all desire to be recognized as unique. We all like to show our personal talents and accomplishments. At the same time we all need to feel connected to others and accepted based on what we share in common. We see this in our associations with family, friends, businesses, hobbies, and churches.
Many fear that instead of spontaneous order, leaving people free to seek their own interests and associations will lead to chaos, theft, and war. Of course people do bad things. As a Christian I believe that every human sins, so it is inevitable that no human society will perfectly serve the needs of each person. However, the point is that God's original design for humans in creation is to have valued individuals working together with others in meaningful relationships, in other words to live according to Ordered Individualism. In part 2, we will look more closely at the family, civilization, and the church to better see how that concept works itself out in God's created order. (I explore another aspect of this order here: The Church And State In Romans 13)
Read part 2 of this topic here: Ordered Individualism - Part 2