Myth: There's no such thing as society
only individuals and
Fact: Two or more people in a cooperative relationship form a society by definition.
Whenever two or more people enter any sort of cooperative relationship, the result is by definition a social group. Group survival is much more effective and efficient than individual survival, but coordinating group survival results in a need for social policy. The market is not truly a place where individuals can act freely and without constraint, because markets are social institutions, and the parameters of legal behavior on the market are set by social agreement.
"There's no such thing as society," British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once declared. "There are individual men and women and there are families."
This remarkable statement serves as a useful litmus test for distinguishing the moderate right from the far right. If you are a conservative and agree with Ms. Thatcher, you most likely subscribe to the far right; if not, you are most likely a moderate. (The reaction of liberals to this audacious claim was predictable: many were left wondering how a great and sophisticated nation like Great Britain could elect anyone to high office without even a rudimentary understanding of sociology.) But as audacious as the claim may be, it is a common one among neo-conservatives. They believe that the concept of society is a myth, and in its place we actually have a collection of disparate individuals.
Perhaps the first important thing to note is that these are semantic games. Society is a "collection of individuals," even formally defined. It's often amusing to watch the verbal contortions that conservatives go through trying to avoid this sense of collectiveness. Instead of a society, they claim, we have a "group" of individuals, or a "collection" of individuals, or "many" individuals, or a "whole bunch of" individuals, or even Margaret Thatcher's solution to the dilemma: "individuals," plural. Yet the moment two or more individuals establish any sort of cooperative relationship with each other, the inevitable result, by definition, is a society.
To say that there is no such thing as society is demonstrably false. Humans are born in groups, raised in groups, work in groups, play in groups, defend their interests in groups, and die in groups. These groups are organized, specialized, interdependent, and greater than the sum of their parts. In fact, individuals owe their very existence to group behavior -- namely, the pair-bond, or the union of mother and father. (This is why Ms. Thatcher had to append the social group "families" to her statement.)
Human beings almost never live outside groups, and if they do, it is usually only briefly. True hermitism is extremely rare. Even such recluse authors and rugged individualists as Ralph Waldo Emerson (who wrote "nothing can bring you peace but yourself" in his essay Self-Reliance) depended on the publishing house and national sales to make him world famous and support his lifestyle.
The reason why true hermitism is almost never seen is because group survival is more efficient that individual survival. Imagine how much poorer you would be if you had to grow your own food, make your own clothes, build your own house, design your own computers, write your own software, assemble your own automobile, fix your own microwave, or treat your own health problems. You would probably become a death risk at the first serious injury or disease. By specializing in a job in an interdependent economy, you are far richer and healthier than you would be otherwise.
The advantage of group survival is the reason why most species practice social behavior. An excellent example of social creatures whose very survival is locked into their interdependence is the bee colony. A bee colony comprises three different types of bees: queens, drones, and workers, each of whom perform complementary tasks for survival. No individual bee could survive for long on its own. They are so interdependent that one could say the entire colony is the real organism; subdivisions of it do not exist independently.
In a similar manner, there is evidence that human beings are genetically wired for social behavior. It is natural for humans to become lonely when separated for long from the group, and to yearn for the friendship and interaction of others. In fact, French sociologist Emile Durkheim discovered that suicide is a function of integration into the social group. The less integrated people are, the more likely they are to commit suicide. (Since Durkheim's discovery, other factors leading to suicide have also been identified, but his theory of social integration remains a central one even today.) (1)
To see how supremely important socialization is, we need only consider the case studies of children who have been raised in complete isolation. Fiction writers have often depicted children raised outside society, usually by wild animals, who are allegedly superior to their socialized kin. Examples include the "noble savage" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and "Tarzan, lord of the apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs. However, real feral children are the exact opposites of their fictional counterparts. Sociologists know of several documented cases of children raised in complete isolation, and all behaved more like wild animals than humans. (2) They could not speak, reacted to humans with fear and hostility, walked hunched or on all fours, tore into their food like wild animals, were apathetic to their surroundings, and were unable to keep even the lowest standards of personal hygiene. Two, Anna and Isabelle, were discovered at age six. Anna died four years later, unable to learn anything more than a few rudimentary phrases. Isabelle received much more excellent care, and under the training of experts was able to reach a normal level of development in two years. A third child, Genie, was found when she was thirteen. She also improved somewhat under expert care, but did not develop to the level of her age group as Isabelle did. These cases show that society plays a decisive role in the lives of individuals.
One of the far right's most cherished beliefs is methodological individualism. This holds that all economic and social phenomena can be traced back to, and explained by, the actions of individuals. Even when individuals act on behalf of a group, or as part of a group, they are acting as individuals. Thus, "group behavior" is a false concept. As political scientist Jon Elster argues: "A family may, after some discussion, decide on a way of spending its income, but the decision is not based on 'its' goals and 'its' beliefs, since there are no such things." (3) Even if the final budget is a compromise that does not correspond to the wish of any single family member, then members have nonetheless agreed to the compromise, since compromising is somehow more rewarding than not compromising.
The opposite of this is methodological holism, or what political scientists more commonly call structure. This holds that groups have traits, behaviors and outcomes that cannot be understood by reducing them to their individual parts. That is, groups consist not only of individuals, but also relationships between individuals. It is not enough to say that "the functions and traits of my car can be reduced to, and explained by, the atoms that make it." This overlooks an equally important point -- that these atoms need to be shaped into a car. The fact that atoms are fundamental units that exhibit certain properties actually explains very little.
An individualist might then object that human beings are not like atoms, in that people have the ability to choose and act. Atoms cannot shape themselves into cars all by themselves, but human individuals have the ability to join groups and shape their own social structures. And individualists argue that organizing a group best occurs at the individual level, not the group level.
The problem with this argument is that organization occurs neither spontaneously nor at an individual level. Consider a car factory that has thousands of employees. No single worker possesses the complete knowledge to build an entire car. Each worker's knowledge and responsibility are specialized and limited, and can only build part of a car. The only way a car rolls off the assembly line is through the interdependent efforts of the entire group. So how does such complex interaction come into existence in the first place? Well, not by itself. Suppose a car factory has no central organization, and workers just began building a car, communicating with no one except the workers whose parts are immediately connected to their own. It could turn out that the engine workers thought they were building a Mercedes Benz, while the trunk workers thought they were building a Yugo. Obviously, there needs to be central organization.
Nor is it correct to say that all central organization can be traced back to the individual, namely, the group leader. Even in their primary role as organizers, corporate heads depend on the group. A company president can only issue general guidelines to his managers, who must inevitably organize and direct much of their departments on their own. The larger a company gets, the less personal and direct control a president has over it. He must delegate out an increasing share of authority and responsibility, and is more dependent than ever on others to help him run things, investigate conditions, inform policy, and make recommendations. Thus, the structure that evolves takes on a life of its own, and cannot be traced back to any single person. In democratic institutions, the lack of individualized leadership becomes even more obvious, since the leader must largely enact the policies favored by the group (and not any specific voter within it).
Central organization is vital not only to companies, but to societies as well. Just as there are no examples of anarchic companies, so, too, are there no examples of anarchic nations. This is not an accident; all groups require some degree of central organization to be successful.
And it's not just the mere existence of central organization that is so important; it's also how it structures society. For example, both North and South Korea have extensive central governments. Both have individual citizens who share the same culture, language and genetic stock. But North Korea is totalitarian; South Korea is democratic. And the result of these different structures is that one suffers crushing poverty, while the other enjoys booming prosperity.
Fallacies of composition
The belief that humans are autonomous individuals leads to a logical error called the "fallacy of composition." This fallacy holds that aggregate behavior is the same as its individual parts. This is hardly true. Atoms may have certain distinct properties, but they rarely appear alone in nature; they almost always form molecules. And these molecules have their own unique properties which are completely different from the expected combination of their individual atoms. One example is the combination of two gases (hydrogen and oxygen) to form a liquid (water).
The same holds for individuals in society. Most of us would agree that individuals are highly self-interested. But this inner trait manifests itself in different outward behaviors, depending on whether the individual is alone or in a group. If we could observe a lone individual in nature, we would probably identify his outward behavior as 100 percent selfish. But place a hundred such individuals together, and the result will not be the same outwardly selfish behavior multiplied a hundred times over. Rather, their outward behavior will become 50 percent selfish and 50 percent giving, as they produce goods for the market, serve customers, obey their bosses, donate their time and money to friends and family, and practise other forms of altruism.
There are numerous other examples of social behavior that cannot be explained on an individual level. One is economic depressions. In the United States, where rugged individualism and self-reliance have always been part of the culture, the Great Depression was a staggering blow to the self-esteem of individuals who could no longer feed their families. Many took it as a sign of personal failure. Today we would surely think these individuals were being too hard on themselves; after all, the Great Depression was a world-wide, macroeconomic phenomenon. They could no more blame themselves for personal failure than victims of the Bubonic Plague could blame themselves for not being sufficiently healthy.
Economics slumps are, in fact, an excellent example of how individual efforts to avoid financial problems inadvertently result in group-wide recessions. Most economists (even conservative ones) accept the following description of recessions by John Maynard Keynes. During normal times, there is a circular flow of money in the economy. My spending becomes part of your earnings, and your spending becomes part of my earnings. For a wide variety of reasons, however, you may lose confidence in the economy. You may therefore decide to spend less and save more in anticipation of the tough times ahead. This may be a rational strategy for an individual, but it leads to disastrous and unintended consequences for the group when everyone does it. That is because your decision to spend less means that I earn less, which makes things tougher for me. So I follow the same personal strategy; I hoard my money, but that only makes things tougher for you. The circular flow of money falters, and the result is a full-blown recession. Keynes believed that social policies, not individual efforts, were best for relieving recessions. He called for central banks to expand the money supply, which would put more money in the hands of consumers and encourage spending again. And the proof is in the pudding; this approach has been a resounding success. In the six decades since World War II, all nations that have followed Keynes' policies have completely eliminated the once-common depression from their economies.
The fact that groups can accomplish things much more easily and efficiently than individuals is well-known. Thus, when the group is faced with a common problem, it makes much more sense to solve it collectively than individually. For example, imagine a land where you were personally responsible for dealing with every threat or problem that came your way. Threatened by crime? Then you can spend thousands of dollars protecting your home with various safeguards. Threatened by air pollution? Then you can buy air-purifiers for your house. Threatened by water pollution? Then you can distill or buy your own bottled water. Threatened by pesticides in your food? Then you can grow your own food. Threatened by disease outbreaks? Then you can quarantine yourself from the rest of the population or buy your own vaccinations. But in all these instances, simply adopting the correct social policy is a far more cost-efficient method of eliminating these threats. An individualistic society would produce many absurdisms, like the fact that all the energy used to run air-purifiers would only pollute the air even more. Or that people would protect themselves from auto accidents by driving tanks instead of just installing street signs. Or an entire population would quarantine itself instead of having the Centers for Disease Control track down, isolate and eliminate the outbreak at its source.
Many conservatives and libertarians acknowledge as much, claiming that the free market could offer and perform all these social services more efficiently than government. Let's ignore, for the moment, the side-issue of whether or not the free market is more efficient than government. At the true center of this argument is an admission that the market is a social institution, one that provides important social services. Acknowledging this role of the market is incompatible with claiming that "there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families."
Social institutions are not created by disparate individuals. They require group agreements. Our so-called "free market" actually consists of two types of social agreements. The first is the private corporation, which is filled with workers who agree to act collectively to create and sell a product. The second is government, which supports, defends and upholds the free market in which corporations perform their transactions. Government defends the free market with police and military force, identifies and protects various types of property, and ensures fair play on the free market by prosecuting fraud, insider-trading, price-gouging, copyright infringement, monopolistic abuse, broken contracts, false advertising, dishonest disclosure, embezzlement, and a thousand other ways that people can lie, cheat and steal on the free market. In other words, the market is only "free" within the parameters that society agrees to establish. Libertarians and conservatives who believe that the market allows individuals to act freely as individuals are therefore in error, because the market itself is first and foremost a social institution. This would remain true even if government could somehow privatize all its services. The only question that remains is: what is the best form of society?
Margaret Thatcher's statement would only be true if the land were reduced to complete anarchy, where individuals fought solely for their own survival in a land of kill-or-be-killed. Frankly, her statement is not a little brain-dead. One has to wonder: if Ms. Thatcher doesn't believe in the existence of society, then what on earth did she think she was Prime Minister of?
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1. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Joseph W. Swain, trans. (Glencoe, IL.: Free Press, 1954 [original 1912]).
2. R. Brown, Words and Things: An Introduction to Language (New York: Free Press, 1958), Chapter 5; Lucien Malson, Wolf Children and the Problems of Human Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972); Harlan Lane, The Wild Boy of Aveyron (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976); Harlan Lane and R. Pillard, The Wild Boy of Berundi: A Study of an Outcast Child (New York: Random House, 1978); J.A.L. Singh and Robert Zingg, Wolf Children and Feral Man, (New York: Harper and Row, 1942).
3. Jon Elster, introduction, Rational Choice, Jon Elster, ed., (New York: New York University Press, 1986), p. 3. Elster is a Marxian, not a member of the far-right, but happens to believe in methodological individualism all the same.