There is a tendency, in contemporary political and economic discourse, to reduce conversations to the level of the aggregate. Thus, we speak in terms of “labor” seeking goals, “nations” taking action and “society” handing the president a mandate. Such a way of looking at the world, as convenient and at times useful as it might be, commits a serious error. A great deal of grief might be saved by framing our discussions around the individual, rather than the collective.
The basis for an individualist approach to economic theory rests on the recognition of one simple axiomatic truism: that, as Ludwig von Mises wrote, “Human action is purposeful behavior.” (In fact, Mises saw this insight as so fundamental to the study of economics he used the sentence as the opener to his thousand-page treatise on the subject). As Mises’ student Murray Rothbard later clarified, this simple yet profound conclusion implied at least two things: that human beings act by employing means, and that they do so in order to achieve ends.
The most immediate implication of this concept, as Rothbard goes on to elaborate, is that only an individual can undertake action. If I am stranded alone on a desert island, for example, I might conceive of many ways in which I might employ certain means—hunting, fishing, building or searching for shelter—in order to achieve certain ends. If the next day I discover a companion on the island, he and I might decide to pool our labor. We might hunt in tandem, or I might build a shelter for us while he hunts. This in no way implies, however, that some magical alteration has taken place, and that we are now both motivated to action by a “collective will.” The existence of such a collective would suggest the almost mystical appearance of some entity independent of our individual actions, which instead are now simply occurring cooperatively.
Some might object that this is an overly simplistic view of the world. It is easy to observe that no mystical “collective” comes into existence when two people cooperate, but what about when two million people cooperate? What about when two hundred million people cooperate, on a national or international scale? Surely, at this point, some sort of collective can be said to exist, and can clearly be said to influence people. After all, some of these collectives—such as “labor,” or even nations like the United States—exert a very real influence in the sphere of human action.
It would not be incorrect to say that a nation acts, as Rothbard might argue, as long as we keep in mind that the concept of a “nation” itself is merely a useful abstraction, or a short-hand. “To say that ‘governments’ act is merely a metaphor,” he writes. “Actually, certain individuals are in a certain relationship with other individuals and act in a way that they and the other individuals recognize as ‘governmental.’” So, when we say that the United States pursues a policy of trade sanctions against Iran, we don’t mean that some giant invisible organization—with an existence all its own, outside of the wills and actions of its many, many members—is refusing to give all of the goods that it somehow possesses to Iranian citizens. What we mean is that the Congress, the president and a small circle of privileged appointees have convinced the individuals who make up the military and law enforcement mechanisms of the state to forcibly prevent a third group of individuals from engaging in peaceful, voluntary exchange with a fourth group of individuals.
That massive populations of people—such as those contained within a nation—do not give rise to some superhuman entity that exists in any way apart from the various actions of its individual members is perhaps best crystallized in the following passage, taken from a speech delivered by economist Joseph Salerno at Columbia University late last year. “When the Soviet tanks, who were guarding the remnants of the Soviet government in the parliament building—they had their turrets turned out at the people—when they saw the masses, who had now seen that it was just a giant rip-off, all amassing outside, the turrets of the tanks turned around,” Salerno says. “And then what was left? A few scared guys, hiding in this building. That was the state. That was the great Soviet Union.”
To return for a moment to the idea that only individuals are capable of action, another common objection holds that this view of the world is “atomistic.” It considers my fellow castaway and me, the argument goes, as isolated, hermetically sealed off individuals. This, however, is simply untrue. “To say that only individuals act is not to deny that they are influenced in their desires and actions by the acts of other individuals,” Rothbard clarifies. I might convince my companion to share the game he catches with me, either by appealing to his sense of charity or friendship, inducing him to trade with me, or threatening to bludgeon him with a club. In any of these cases, any influence I have on my companion is an outgrowth of my individual action manifesting itself within his individual response. It’s also untrue that methodological individualism requires a set of “fully rational” individuals. If pleading with, trading with or beating my companion fail to get me a share of the catch, it doesn’t mean that I, as an individual, didn’t employ means in order to attain certain ends. It just means that I was wrong about which means would effectively get me to where I wanted to be.
At first glance, the recognition of human action as purposeful behavior might seem simple and straightforward, but its implications, upon deep enough rumination, can lead us to a powerful conclusion. Once it is accepted that institutions such as the state are mere collections of people, it becomes clear that they have no existence of their own, and are an ill-fitting frame for the ways in which we discuss political and economic life.
Life, after all, belongs to the living.
Chris Bassil, Trinity ‘12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every Wednesday. You can follow Chris on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.