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Social Cooperation, Part 2

Sheldon Richman

Last month I wrote about Ludwig von Mises’s emphasis on social cooperation as the basis of his economic philosophy, particularly in his magnum opus, Human Action. I thought I’d follow up with more thoughts on this subject.

Mises was no maverick in this regard. Interest in social cooperation pervades the best classical-liberal and libertarian thought. Paradoxical as it sounds, it is at the heart of the philosophy of individualism. If opponents of the freedom philosophy base their criticism on an atomistic model of the individual, it’s largely because too many libertarians overlook their heritage and emphasize that side of the coin to the neglect of the social side.

Leading thinkers in the liberal tradition have sought a synthesis of individual and society. In Social Statics (1850), Herbert Spencer discussed the “tendency to individuation,” which is most pronounced in the human race:

[The person] is self-conscious; that is, he recognizes his own individuality. . . . [W]hat we call the moral law—the law of equal freedom—is the law under which individuation becomes perfect, and that ability to act up to this law is the final endowment of humanity. . . . The increasing assertion of personal rights is an increasing demand that the external conditions needful to a complete unfolding of the individuality shall be respected. Not only is there now a consciousness of individuality and an intelligence whereby individuality may be preserved, but there is a perception that the sphere of action requisite for due development of the individuality may be claimed, and a correlative desire to claim it. And when the change at present going on is complete—when each possesses an active instinct of freedom, together with an active sympathy—then will all the still existing limitations to individuality, be they governmental restraints or be they the aggressions of men on one another, cease. Then none will be hindered from duly unfolding their natures.

But in the next section Spencer wrote:

Yet must this higher individuation be joined with the greatest mutual dependence. Paradoxical though the assertion looks, the progress is at once toward complete separateness and complete union. But the separateness is of a kind consistent with the most complex combinations for fulfilling social wants; and the union is of a kind that does not hinder entire development of each personality. Civilization is evolving a state of things and a kind of character in which two apparently conflicting requirements are reconciled.

Thus Spencer foresaw “at once perfect individuation and perfect mutual dependence.”

Just that kind of individuality will be acquired which finds in the most highly organized community the fittest sphere for its manifestation, which finds in each social arrangement a condition answering to some faculty in itself, which could not, in fact, expand at all if otherwise circumstanced. The ultimate man will be one whose private requirements coincide with public ones. He will be that manner of man who, in spontaneously fulfilling his own nature, incidentally performs the functions of a social unit, and yet is only enabled so to fulfill his own nature by all others doing the like.

For Spencer, to violate the law of equal freedom—“that vital law of the social organism”—is to assault society itself. It sounds as though Spencer is saying that we need society not only for economic exchange and security but something more—because our very nature requires it.


Despite some differences this reminds me of Aristotle. (Fred D. Miller, Jr., finds classical-liberal themes in Aristotle.) In Politics Aristotle states that a polis is not merely a collection of individuals seeking gains from trade and safety. It “is a community of families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life. . . . The end of the state [polis] is the good life. . . .”

Aristotle famously identified the human being as a social/political animal, a concept inseparable from the capacity to reason, use language, and discourse. In Aristotle’s view a human being can live like a human being only in society. We need other people to be fully human because we can’t know what we need to know or do what we need to do except through interaction in a community. “For each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence,” Aristotle writes.

Likewise in the Nicomachean Ethics he writes, “For the final and perfect good seems to be self-sufficient. However, we define something as self-sufficient not by reference to the ‘self’ alone. We do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political animal.”


Auburn University philosopher Roderick T. Long (to whom I am indebted for his discussion of Aristotle in Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Ayn Rand) emphasizes Aristotle’s view that we can’t know very much without help from society. Discussing Aristotle’s theory of knowledge and belief, Long notes that for the Greek philosopher endoxa, or “reputable beliefs,” are critical to the individual. No one builds up her knowledge from scratch on a bedrock foundation. We are born into a particular context and are taught many things, some true and some false. It would be impossible to start over, and fortunately there is no need to. We can begin with the beliefs we have and move forward making adjustments as we find inconsistencies and learn new information. This is necessarily a social process. Long writes: “But Aristotle thinks I will have good reasons for including the endoxa of others—the collective wisdom of mankind, as it were—among my endoxa or phainomena. The pursuit of knowledge is a cooperative endeavor, and will be more successful if everyone is allowed to make a contribution.”

Aristotle says, “For each man has something personal to contribute toward the truth. . . .” For him, society is not just a bridge to the good life, it is constitutive of the good life.

I could also invoke Ludwig Wittgenstein (no classical liberal), who drew attention to the intrinsically public nature of language (and hence thought) itself. Wittgenstein, like F. A. Hayek, underscored the communality of rules. “The word ‘agreement’ and the word ‘rule,’” Wittgenstein wrote, “are related to one another, they are cousins [like Wittgenstein and Hayek]. If I teach anyone the use of the one word, he learns the use of the other with it.”

Only individuals value, choose, and act, of course, but in an important sense the resulting social whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Thus the defense of personal liberty is the defense of society. Let’s hear liberalism’s opponents criticize that.

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