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What Is It With This Insistence Upon Individualism?

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Tsk and all that, we westerners – neoliberals to a man – are guilty of individualism. I’m out for me me, me, I am and that’s what’s wrong with society today.

Or even, that’s what has built society today:

Joseph Henrich is a Harvard anthropologist whose new book The Weirdest People in the World identifies one big theme in western civilisation: individualism. Henrich argues that the unusually individualistic psychology of westerners makes them radically different to most other societies in the world. This might sound trite but Henrich makes a convincing argument showing how, over centuries, individualism freed westerners from the restrictions of social networks based on kinship, such as tribes and families. We became more mobile, better at exchanging ideas and more adept at co-operating in large non-familial organisations such as guilds, scientific societies and nation states. These changes fuelled innovation and growth, propelling the West to its economic, technological and military ascendancy.

Hmm, well, it’s an idea. And yes, the nuclear family has made a difference from those extended families blending into clans that might predominate elsewhere.

But there’s useful evidence to show that this isn’t, in fact, individualism at all. It’s a different way, a different manner, of acting collectively and as part of the collective, but it’s still entirely collective behaviour.

Firstly, take the ultimatum game idea. $100 to be divided between the two players, player one gets to decide upon the split, two gets to decide whether to accept or not. A rejected offer means no one gets anything, accepted means the cash actually moves in that portion of that split.

We find that, in western, market, so-called individualistic, societies that “unfair” (worse than about 60/40 usually) splits get rejected. The lesson taken from this is that we will act against our own immediate interests – hey, $30 is $30 – in order to punish those violating societal expectations of fairness. This is specifically used as evidence against the atomistic individualism of western society and its expectations.

OK, so it’s evidence against individualism then. The fun thing being that this behaviour vanishes in more “communal” societies – or perhaps ones dominated by extended families and clans. 90/10 is accepted – hey, $10 is $10 – because there isn’t that willingness to take it on the chin in the short term to improve society over the long. The western societies where the social pressure – at individual cost – is applied are less individualistic than those more clan based ones.

We can, and should, move from the detail to the larger story. What is a market other than cooperation? Here is my nice piece of printed paper, which I value less than your bananas, offered in exchange for those bananas of yours which you value less than my nice piece of paper. This is cooperation, no?

Yes, indeed it is cooperation. The competition part of the system is in deciding who to swap paper and bananas with, Mr. Sainsbury (or Mr. Fyffe) or Mr. Morrison (or Mr. Chiquita).

What western society actually allows us to do is decide who to cooperate with. Rather than only cooperating with those we have a Haldane relationship with (JBS and the brothers and cousins thing) we can cooperate with anyone and we build vast networks of impersonal, even unknown, cooperation that span the globe through our use of markets.

What’s individualistic about cooperating with thousands of people across oceans, countries, continents even, when eating a banana?

The base contention, that western civilisation is one of individuals who do not cooperate is simply wrong. Life is entirely the other way around. It’s the people who don’t trade that are the atomised and isolated.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. The Western Civilisation difference is being allowed to choose who you co-operate with, instead of it being imposed on you. I choose to self-associate with a group of computer nerds, a group of history nerds, a group of politics nerds, instead of being forced to only associate with family and others born within 100 yards of myself.

  2. I have seen a credible alternative explanation for the difference in attitudes show in the ultimatum game – it’s not western civilisation that matters, it’s wealth. The comparisons were done in poor countries and the equivalent in places like the USA wuld be not offering $100 to be divided, but $100,000. The see how many people would refuse $10,000 – especially college students with big loans and side jobs working long hours to pay for their courses. Obviously, I have not tried running this experiment myself.

  3. Interesting that Henrich argued that individualism is more rampant. Presumably he considered selfishness as a growing trait to berate but couldn’t hang an argument on that hook.

  4. Charles – I’ve often wondered about that. If the $ involved is trivial it’s a lot easier to turn it down. My principles are worth more than $10, but $10,000?

    Although, if the experimenters were careful to make sure the participating groups were comparable they should have controlled for serious differences in finances.

    Those of us in free market societies are also, I believe, less inclined to think that we have to settle for whatever we’re offered.

  5. “…individualism freed westerners from the restrictions of social networks based on kinship, such as tribes and families. We became more mobile, better at exchanging ideas and more adept at co-operating in large non-familial organisations such as guilds, scientific societies and nation states.”

    “What western society actually allows us to do is decide who to cooperate with. ….we can cooperate with anyone and we build vast networks of impersonal, even unknown, cooperation that span the globe through our use of markets.”

    If there is a distinction there, it is one without a difference.

    You might want to actually learn to read for comprehension, Tim.

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