Liberty Matters

Identifying Classes and Methodological Individualism


The classical-liberal/libertarian tradition embraces a distinctive understanding of class. On this understanding, class membership is constituted not, as on Marxist and similar views, by relationships to the means of production (though these are certainly implicated in various ways), but rather by relationship to predatory power.[31] This distinctive understanding possesses substantial illuminating power, and it is a vital component of any classical-liberal or libertarian political theory. This is so because it helps to make clear that the libertarian or classical liberal understands, is sensitive to, is concerned about those deep-seated frustrations that give rise to movements like Occupy! and the Tea Party. Perhaps more importantly, it also helps to underscore the fact that the libertarian or classical liberal can offer an effective response to these frustrations that is consistent with her own political philosophy, and so is not ad hoc.
David Hart has performed an invaluable service over more than two decades as a prime chronicler, interpreter, transmitter, and exponent of this mode of class analysis. In his lead essay, he helpfully notes a wide variety of historical topics and contemporary issues on which our Liberty Matters conversation this month might focus. In this initial response, I want briefly to address two: the relationship between class analysis and methodological individualism, and the definition of class with reference to state-conferred benefit.
Class and Methodological Individualism
We have good reason to be methodological individualists. The methodological individualist insight is that all actions are actions undertaken by real persons, identifiable agents, who make choices in light of their own beliefs and preferences. Social phenomena may be, and ultimately can only be, explained in terms of the choices of these agents. But viewing individual agents as explanatorily irreducible needn’t mean thinking away class.
There might, indeed, be a conflict between methodological individualism and class analysis if engaging in class analysis meant denying the agency of the individuals who make up classes or if it meant treating the classes as agents over and above their members. But, as far as I can see, it needn’t mean either.
A class-analytic view simply begins with the assumption that (i) we can identifiable common circumstances, outlooks, and interests, (ii) these common circumstances, outlooks, and interests predictably influence (even if they do not determine) agents’ choices, and (iii) it is not only the case that the preexisting circumstances, outlooks, and interests of similarly situated agents influence all of these agents in predictable ways but also that the ongoing choices these agents make in light of these factors influence each other’s attitudes and actions as well. In addition, it will sometimes also be the case that (iv) a subset, perhaps a quite influential subset, of a group whose members are effectively linked because of these factors may act self-consciously and deliberately in pursuit of the interests of the class (or of the interests of the subset in ways that yield spillover benefits to the group as a whole). The perception of common interests isn’t necessary for people with shared characteristics to constitute a class, but of course awareness of such interests can help to constitute a class as such.
None of these characteristics depends on the denial of individual agency or on the postulation of any sort of supra-individual agency. The methodological individualist can see shared features, the influence of these features, the feedback effects exerted by actions made in light of this influence, and, sometimes, self-conscious, coordinated action by group members as fully explicable in individual terms and yet, at the same time, as usefully characterized with reference to class membership. This is so because, even though the methodological individualist understands the individual as the ultimate explanatory unit, she will have perfectly good reason to acknowledge that the language of class helps us to see individual reality more clearly. It provides an illuminating lens through which to organize our understanding of the roots, dynamics, and consequences of individual action.
Identifying Classes
Hart rightly notes the difficulty with analyzing class in terms of net tax consumption and similar variables. He emphasizes that we are all tax consumers in one way or another, even if some of us benefit more than others. I submit that the difficulty lies not only in the complexities associated with performing the needed computations and making the needed accounting decisions (how to allocate this or that benefit, etc.) but also in the focus of this sort of analysis, familiar though it is from such class theorists as Calhoun and Rothbard, on the outcome of state action.
Of course, the growth of the regulatory-cum-administrative state has meant that state benefits can’t all be seen in terms of cash transfers. Tariffs would have played a significant role in shifting wealth to privileged groups in the eras of Smith and Say, Bastiat and Calhoun. But today state regulations of all kinds also help to confer class position. These include everything from occupational licensing rules to building codes to institutional accreditation requirements (for entities like banks and hospitals). Artificial property rights—especially rights to “intellectual property”—are also obviously vital. And while these factors, along with straightforward subsidies and tariffs, help to shift wealth and influence to well-connected groups, they do so in complicated and subtle ways.
It’s not just the multiple sources of class privilege that should be seen as relevant in constituting classes from a libertarian/classical-liberal perspective, however. Equally important is the role of those who possess or seek privilege in influencing or effecting grants of privilege. And it is this additional factor—related to the springs of state action and not merely its outcomes—that helps to distinguish the rulers and their allies on the one hand from mere beneficiaries of state action on the other.
Except in the fantasies of some naïve culture warriors, single mothers benefiting from government financial assistance do not constitute an effective power bloc. While those who receive such assistance may, indeed, acquire more from the state than they pay in taxes, they are not members of the ruling class or closely associated with it, since in no obvious sense are they in a position to move the levers of power, nor are they, in general, seeking to do so. No doubt state actors do sometimes confer financial benefits on the poor and marginal to keep them pacified or to promote other benefits sought by the powerful and well-connected; and no doubt wealthy elites sometimes encourage the conferral of such benefits for this reason. But when this sort of thing occurs, it doesn’t somehow make the poor and the marginal into politically efficacious actors.
It is also worth emphasizing that, while poor people may sometimes receive more in tax revenue than they pay in taxes, treating them as net consumers of state benefits will often make sense only if we ignore the multiple disabilities imposed on them by the state,[32] not to mention the “subsidy of history” effected by massive asset theft by wealthy and well-connected elites.[33] State actors and their allies have thus both actively dispossessed poor people (with obvious, even if not always inescapable consequences for their successors in interest) and shackled them with constraints that make achieving economic well-being difficult. When these factors are taken into account, it is much less clear that many poor people, even if they do receive state-conferred benefits, qualify as net beneficiaries of state action.
Whether they do or not, however, I believe the active role played by elite factions and their allies in securing state benefits for themselves (and imposing regulatory and other costs on others) distinguishes these groups from the economically marginal in an important way. This distinction helps to justify referring to these groups as elements of the ruling class (or as that class’s upper- and upper-middle-class associates) quite apart from the specific benefits they receive.
Class analysis remains a fruitful field of study for libertarian and classical-liberal historians, philosophers, lawyers, economists, and sociologists. This is so even if they are, rightly, committed to methodological individualism: class analysis is quite compatible with methodologically individualist assumptions. And it is also quite compatible with acknowledging that the dominant classes are defined not only by their immediate receipt of cash transfers from the state but also by their active and effective role in securing state benefits.
[31.] In practical terms today this will mean, in general, relationship to the state. But it need not in the abstract. Organized Mafiosi, for instance, might play a similar role in some contexts.
[32.] See Charles Johnson, “Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty As We Know It,” The Freeman, December 2007, <>, and Gary Chartier, “Government Is No Friend of the Poor,” The Freeman, January 2012,  <>.
[33.] See Kevin A. Carson, “The Subsidy of History,” The Freeman, June 2008, <>.