Three Ways of Looking at Individualism: Freedom in Association

Sometimes defenders of individualism are accused of “atomism”. I’m not really sure what that term means because skeptics, if they define it at all, rarely define it in a way that reflects what serious defenders of individualism claim. Defenders are often charged with preaching selfishness, materialism, anti-socialness, and lack of empathy or support for the larger community outside perhaps one’s narrow band of kin and friends. However, most defenders I’m aware of acknowledge that much of who we are is inherited from our culture and is path dependent on the order of our life experiences. Moreover, in order to live good lives, people could not at all be atomistic in the ways critics allude.
Matters couldn’t be any other way since there is so much information coming into our brains each second. From a social standpoint, we need an epistemic and normative division of labor as much as we need an economic one to handle the complexity still facing our conscious awareness. We would be overwhelmed if we had to consciously decide for ourselves every single preference, belief, and value we hold based on this data flux. Left only to conscious processing of the world, we would be at the mercy of phenomena as a blooming, buzzing confusion. This being said, we have the opportunity to endorse, reject, or withhold judgment when faced with views that conflict with our other views. This ability suggests that we are neither entirely free of natural and social constraints - nor entirely determined by them.  

Left as atoms, our knowledge would be limited to what we can experience directly and infer ourselves, without the benefit of others’ expertise. Atoms can’t form language, science, philosophy, prices, markets, or communities – those who engage in any collaboration by definition can’t be entirely self-contained. We would be unable to benefit from coordination of often dispersed and changing information, and others’ tacit knowledge, as F.A. Hayek observed.

One of the most important rights – freedom of association – reflects the fact that the resources necessary for realizing the full worth of individual freedom are also a function of sociality. We typically have a difficult time recognizing or seeing around our own biases or habitually held beliefs, but we have each other to point them out when needed. Chapter 2 of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty elaborates sagely on this point. Civil discourse helps us winnow out our false or unsupported beliefs and get closer to justified beliefs, even truth. Mill writes: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” The living apprehension of a truth is best supported by explaining it to those who disagree even if those others are mistaken; otherwise, true beliefs grow stale in one’s mind because one holds them while not remembering why. Knowledge and wisdom are inherently the products of active, ongoing engagement with our fellow persons, and diversity of viewpoints helps rather than hinders civil inquiry for the reasons Mill discusses. 

As with discourse, production is necessarily social, not only through division of labor, but also in finding markets for one’s goods or services. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations identifies the importance of being able to recognize other people’s needs, preferences, and values. In a diverse world, a producer can’t assume that anyone else wants what she’s looking to trade. She has to have a good idea of what other people value or else they won’t buy it and she won’t profit. Entrepreneurship is largely the art of recognizing gaps in what others actually or potentially demand, and what’s currently undersupplied. This requires some ability to walk in others’ shoes. 

We are interdependent, but that interdependence can only create prosperity if enough individuals have independent judgment in light of our social dispositions. Moreover, association would not be a sacrosanct freedom if we were not social creatures. We are shaped but not entirely determined by nature and nurture. We have room left for free will. The locus of choice is about how and when to think and act in ways reflecting our cultural inheritances. We can use our freedom wisely or poorly, depending on the choices we make within that context.

In a relatively free society, one aspect of this freedom is our ability to choose – to some degree – those with whom we interact when we value their company. Note that freedom of association also implies freedom of disassociation. We should be free to exit (where possible) social conditions that don’t accord with our scheme of values. A corollary of this freedom is that none of us should be forcibly ushered into the collective pursuit of some overarching social goal, be it: nationalism, some or other religion, egalitarianism of whatever stripe, utilitarian maximization of this or that good, etc.