All Commentary
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 Leer en Español

Methodological Individualism

I am just now rereading Ludwig von Mises’s magnum opus, Human Action.  What a joy it is to get reacquainted with Mises’s masterful work and to use it as a benchmark to gauge my own intellectual odyssey since first reading it more than 40 years ago.

Early on the reader encounters the term “methodological individualism.”  This mouthful may seem at first to be some abstruse epistemological concept that can be forgotten once the foundations for Mises’s economics have been established.  On the contrary, revisiting Mises has made me realize just how thoroughly I have internalized the concept and what a big difference it has made in my thinking about political and economic controversies.

Let’s start with what methodological individualism is not.  It has nothing to do with “rugged individualism.”  It is not ideology at all.  It is a term that describes the essential nature of human thought and action.  It is a bedrock principle on which Mises grounds his entire exposition of economics.

“The Hangman, not the state, executes a criminal.”  This is Mises’s pithy summary of methodological individualism.  Mises does not deny that the hangman acts under the influence of his relationships to others in society.  He is an employee or a servant of some penal system and is obliged to carry out executions when so ordered. He may fear consequences if he fails to act as ordered.  He may have a family that he provides for.  He may wish to secure his place in Heaven. None of these conditions alters the basic sequence of events: The hangman ponders the action he is set to perform, thinking carefully or hardly at all.  He believes his best choice is to pull the rope that opens the chute.  He causes his arm to move and the deed is done.

When we think about the hangman from the point of view of praxeology (Mises’s name for the science of human action) we are not concerned with the social or psychological factors that may have influenced his action, nor the neural firings in his brain, nor the musculoskeletal actions in his arm.  We are simply observing that actions are always initiated and carried out by individuals and are always motivated by the individual’s expectation of being better off as a result of the chosen action rather than some alternative.  We have volition, and we have goals.  We cause things to happen hoping to remove “felt uneasiness,” as Mises puts it.

If only individuals act, “group action” means nothing more than the concerted actions of individual group members.  Yet we constantly hear people talking in ways which imply that groups in and of themselves really do act.  As a harmless example, think of a fan leaving the stadium and saying, “We beat the Tigers!” when all that really happened was that somebody hit a home run and somebody threw a bunch of strikeouts and so forth.

How about this: “General Motors announced a product recall.”  But there is no acting entity called General Motors.  What really happened was that individual employees issued recall notices, acting under their contractual obligations to executives who had individually endorsed the recall.  No great harm here.

The language of group action gets serious with politics.  The very first sentence of the U.S. Constitution, which declares that “We the People” established it, is simply a myth.  A few select individuals voted it into existence, and they’re all dead.  We might like the Constitution very much and wish the politicians would obey it, but in no way does that leadoff sentence morally bind anyone alive today.

It gets really serious when warfare is involved.  It may be a convenient shortcut when a U.S. citizen says, “We are sending drones into Pakistan.”  But the corrosive implication is that all of us Americans are somehow responsible for the actions of the CIA operatives and others who actually send in the drones.

Studying and internalizing Mises’s notion of methodological individualism inoculates one against the aforementioned fallacies and countless others.  “But at what cost?” you might ask.  Does this individualistic outlook somehow make one into a hermit, a curmudgeon, a sourpuss?  On the contrary, I submit that our social and business relations are more satisfying for us and for those around us when we are grounded in the recognition of each individual as the source of his or her own actions.  We are more likely to find people we can admire and trust and less likely to get mixed up with fools.

  • Warren Gibson teaches engineering at Santa Clara University and economics at San Jose State University.