Tibor Machan's 'Classical Individualism' by Russell Madden
The Liberal Institute

Tibor Machan's Book 'Classical Individualism'

Individualism is under increasing attack. It is denounced as inimical to a sense of community, as offering a false view of human nature, and as an inept attempt to provide a foundation for a morally bankrupt economic system, i.e., capitalism. For a society which once prided itself on the unique worth of each particular person and which has produced the highest living standards in history, this assault from academics and popular media is ironic and sometimes baffling.

It is also disturbing and frightening in its implications for freedom, morality, and future prosperity.

In Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being (1998), Tibor Machan continues his defense of what so many enemies of liberty envision as an inconvenient stumbling block in their quest to collectivize and regiment all aspects of our culture. Here he examines the arguments of foes of individualism, natural rights, and capitalism and finds them lacking. Along the way, he defends free will, objectivity, and property rights as he seeks to establish principles which best enable people to live happy and ethical existences.

Perhaps it is an unintended, backhanded compliment to individualism that its opponents must assail the straw man caricature of Hobbesian radical, atomistic individualism in order to advance their statist agenda. The most vociferous critics such as Amitai Etzioni and Robert Bellah ignore the kind of classical (or "moderate") individualism which Machan champions.

At its most basic, Machan's position is that:

1. Humans form a distinct species, different in kind and not merely degree from lower animals.

2. One of their fundamental traits is "the capacity to be rational individuals" having free will and able to initiate conceptual thought, i.e., they are capable of self-generated and self-directed action.

3. The primary purpose of each person is to flourish to the fullest extent possible given his unique circumstances.

4. The proper social/political system is one which best enables individuals to achieve this goal, i.e., capitalism. Frustratingly, even many who defend capitalism see the notion of a moral, individualist underpinning for our economic system as a threat to freedom. Machan critiques the common economic view of humans as mere "utility maximizers." This outlook, he contends, adheres too closely to Hobbesian radical individualism. In accepting such a footing, economists face objections which leave them floundering when confronted with moral (rather than utilitarian) arguments against capitalism.

Among other problems, the most worrisome may be the moral subjectivism accepted by classical and neoclassical economists to bolster their case. "[I]ts subjectivism also applies to its own cherished principles" (p. 4) and thus it cannot muster any objective argument against those who disagree. Without an objective grounding, the utilitarian project to defend capitalism dissolves into a framework we have agreed to try but from which we can step away at any time. Arbitrary rules rather than objectively determined principles arising from the nature of what it means to be human offer us no stability and no defense against the collectivists and statists. "Any judgment of what is morally or politically good or bad...comes to no more than a preference...lacking any objective, binding moral import." (p. 5)

Without a means to say what people should or should not do; without a way to establish general principles applying to all individuals regardless of their context; without a firm barrier against those who believe they need no justification for what they will force upon us, it is little wonder that collectivism -- which does lay claim to proper morality -- continues to enjoy broad appeal and power in cultures throughout the world.

Machan does not demand that economists actively offer moral defenses of capitalism and the economic activities they study. He does, however, suggest that they should at least acknowledge that their investigations do, in fact, rest on objective moral principles, even if they choose not to focus their energies upon them. (He draws an analogy with an engineer who concentrates on building bridges but can still note that his work depends upon and actualizes objectively verifiable laws.)

Machan points out the false view many have of objectivity, namely that it applies only to what is known eternally and unchangeably as true. Instead, he notes that to be objective means to examine all relevant evidence, to have "support that establishes the truth of something beyond a reasonable doubt" (p. 64); to accept general principles but to realize they will be applied differently depending upon an individual's specific circumstances ("Objectivity lies in the means of proving...some claim, not in the range of its applicability." [p. 54]); and that a "central feature of any objective ethical value judgment...is that a person must be able to choose" (p. 11). Thus there is no justification for forcing people to behave in a particular way even if that behavior is objectively best for them.

Machan also takes those economists to task who view "rational behavior" as any action that is "deliberate" (planned) without regard to any moral evaluation. Unlike F. A. Hayek (who conflated "deliberate" and "intended" behavior), Machan believes people can "intend" to act in a certain way (and thus be responsible for that action) without necessarily engaging in "premeditated planning."

Why does this distinction matter? Because Hayek sought to differentiate between market actions and those of governmental planners without having to resort to "normative political theory." Yet if Hayek's view of rationality is accepted, such obviously immoral behavior as rape, murder, and genocide must be viewed as "rational." If the choice is between "rational" action (which in Hayek's scheme would include behavior that common sense would declare as evil) and "irrationality," it is little wonder that economic ideas have such difficulty gaining acceptance among the general populace and that so many people denounce rationality.

Properly understood, to be rational is to be in mental focus, i.e., to be aware of and to integrate all relevant and available evidence bearing upon a particular situation. The rational-action theorists' view, however, is merely an uninformative tautology:

1. Rational action stems from a calculation of costs and benefits.

2. Costs and benefits are subjective.

3. A person acts in a way which he believes is the best course to follow.

4. How do we know he believed this? Because that is the behavior he performed ("revealed preference").

5. Therefore, "all actions are necessarily characterized by their seeming to the agent to be the (best) thing to do." (p. 38) This precludes us from reaching any objective judgment of a person's behavior and leaves us impotent to criticize any behavior or hold anyone morally accountable (including the enemies of freedom). Yet even those who appeal to such a subjective orientation maintain that everyone else should believe as they do...which is, itself, a normative judgment.

For Machan, "...human evil is the willful neglect of full mental focus, and if the results of full mental focus are always as good as they could possibly be as far as the quality of human actions is concerned, then full mental focus cannot have as its target evil ends." (p. 42)

In addition to these more foundational issues, Machan refutes fallacies leveled at capitalism and demonstrates that it is the only moral economic/political system. By preserving individuals' moral autonomy through the observation of property rights, capitalism preserves people's "moral autonomy" and provides the culture most likely to enable individuals to achieve success and happiness in their social and personal existences. He also demonstrates the superiority of classical individualism and capitalism to multiculturalism, radical feminism, animal rights, and statist environmentalism in addressing current social problems.

Machan's final chapter considers "the moral vision of Ayn Rand" and her emphasis on reason, individualism, and capitalism. In her work, he finds support for people's "objective need for morality" and the fact that the "happiness and perfection of human life" must take precedence over any imposed duties. Following her ethical theory, we are each able "to construct our own personal -- but always human -- ideal." (p. 189) In order to live meaningful, inspired lives, we need not accept any external, collectivist vision to which we must subordinate ourselves. We must each "undertake the supreme moral effort to think conscientiously and to live by the judgment of such conscientious thought." (p. 195)

While many people find this prospect frightening or disgusting, others -- such as Tibor Machan -- welcome it with open arms. I can only concur.

RUSSELL MADDEN writes for The Freeman, Free Radical, Spin Tech,
and many others including Laissez-Faire City Times
where this review originally appeared