All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Individualism in Modern Thought from Adam Smith to Hayek

Social Phenomena Can Be Explained in Terms of Their Simpler Components

Some social theorists believe that moral, political, and economic order must be imposed according to some central plan. In their view, only constant management can generate and sustain the complex, mutually supportive norms of advanced societies. Another tradition in social thought defends an “open society” one founded on respect for voluntarism and individual freedom. Thinkers in that tradition believe social order can and should emerge spontaneously.

Lorenzo Infantino, a professor of sociology in Rome, embraces methodological individualism, which understands complicated social phenomena in terms of their simpler components, namely, individual human actions. Infantino presents a wide-ranging survey of central figures in sociology, political economy, and philosophy to compare how individualism and collectivism account for social order.

Two hundred years ago David Hume argued that order does not entail an intelligence that creates it. Admittedly, what Adam Smith calls the “invisible hand,” and what F. A. Hayek (following Michael Polanyi) calls a “spontaneous order” may seem planned. It is tempting to misread the complexities of an economy as designed or at least as something design could improve.

Appealing to figures such as Smith, Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises, and Georg Simmel, Infantino suggests that order must not be imposed. Free actors engage in mutually beneficial exchanges that bureaucrats could not possibly fathom. The reciprocal relationships people voluntarily establish channel self-interest to mutual advantage and promote a prosperous social order.

Social contract thinkers speak of individuals in a “natural condition” who literally construct a social order. Thomas Hobbes, for example, regarded men as having “sprung out of the earth, and suddenly (like mushrooms) come to full maturity, without all kind of engagement to each other.” Infantino prefers Smith, Bernard Mandeville, and Popper, all of whom dismissed the idea of a pre-social “pure self.” Society is necessary to generate language, moral norms, and an individual’s very capacity for self-awareness. Infantino writes, “When man discovers himself, he is already united with others by a social bond; he does not need to create it.” Our natural social situation thus militates against social “constructivism.”

The norms that emerge in society ought to be privileged, Infantino argues. If norms persist, he writes, “it is because they answer to the needs of the social actors.” But one then wonders why government (particularly intrusive government) has emerged and endures. Without appealing to moral values, it is unclear how the norms of liberty and free exchange are better than the norms by and through which government exists and functions. Noting this omission is not necessarily a criticism of Infantino so much as it is a potential problem with any defense of liberal social order.

A significant portion of the text is dedicated to lengthy (albeit useful) citations. It is sometimes unclear, however, how topics among (and even within) chapters cohere in a unified project. Infantino’s frequent references to figures and concepts in the social sciences may also seem esoteric to the uninitiated. The general reader may find the book hard going in places.

The book could have drawn stronger links between tyranny and a closed society. Infantino makes some gestures in this direction, but one wishes he had cast a stronger argument to show that constructivism cannot help but produce political and economic malaise. Similarly, the book could have shown more forcefully how spontaneous order and individual freedom go hand in hand. Here, we only see glimpses of the connections.

Lorenzo Infantino has provided a splendid overview of key figures in the social sciences, how they compare on the issues of political order, and the best way to analyze collective entities. Had he fleshed out the links among his various lines of discussion and done more to clarify the comparisons among thinkers for the reader, the book would have been more useful yet. Still, the author is to be congratulated for his work on this vital topic.

Andrew Cohen is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma.