The Pope’s Favorite Straw Man: “Individualism”

By: Ryan McMaken
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Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly attacked what he now calls the "liberal-individualist" or "neoliberal" vision of the world. With last week's statement to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Francis has renewed the attack, but the in the process has exhibited a number of political biases and demonstrably false assumptions. 

This line of attack began almost as soon as Francis's pontificate began. In 2013, for example, he denounced “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world..."

The Pope has also repeatedly suggested that he believes financial markets are essentially unregulated and that many of the the world's regimes are laissez-faire minimalist states. Obviously, such claims can easily be shown to be empirically false. The financial sector is one of the most heavily regulated worldwide, and the governments in the richest countries in the world — the United States included — spend approximately one-fifth of total GDP on government welfare programs alone. Indeed, when it comes to government spending on health care — not private spending, mind you — the United States — that supposed bastion of "free-market" thinking — is the fourth highest in the world. 

The Pope's Imaginary World 

The Pope also tends to indulge in a variety of other easily-disproved and empirically false claims. He claims, for example, that the world's poor are getting poorer, when all the available data points in exactly the opposite direction. Meanwhile, infant mortality rates among the world's poorest regions are falling, literacy rates are increasing, and access to clean water is increasing

Any good Christian cleric, of course, will exhort the faithful to pay attention to the poor, and to act with radical amounts of charity. In his attempts to cater to certain political ideologies, however, the Pope merely betrays a deep ignorance of the basic facts surrounding economic trends in the world.  

Now, with his latest attack on the "liberal-individualist" view, the Pope also appears to not understand the very ideology he attacks, and resorts to setting up straw men about what is most easily described as laissez-faire liberalism — or simply "liberalism." 

The Pope imagines that libertarianism is immensely popular, and then trots out all the usual accusations: 

Finally, I cannot but speak of the serious risks associated with the invasion, at high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools, of positions of libertarian individualism. A common feature of this fallacious paradigm is that it minimizes the common good, that is, “living well”, a “good life” in the community framework, and exalts the selfish ideal that deceptively proposes a “beautiful life”. If individualism affirms that it is only the individual who gives value to things and interpersonal relationships, and so it is only the individual who decides what is good and what is bad, then libertarianism, today in fashion, preaches that to establish freedom and individual responsibility, it is necessary to resort to the idea of “self-causation”. Thus libertarian individualism denies the validity of the common good because on the one hand it supposes that the very idea of “common” implies the constriction of at least some individuals, and the other that the notion of “good” deprives freedom of its essence.

Ah yes, libertarianism is sweeping the universities and schools! Every where we look, artists and intellectuals tell us of the virtues of libertarianism. The "High levels of culture" are absolutely saturated with libertarian ideologues, Francis tells us. 

It's clear that Francis doesn't exactly have his finger on the pulse of modern academia, and but even though he apparently knows little about where and with whom libertarianism is popular, let's take a look at what Francis seems to believe characterizes the ideology. 

Libertarian thought, Francis says, involves a rejection of the common good, and strips human life of the idea that there is a "good life" outside the bare-bones human existence of the marketplace. There is no value in the "community framework" in the libertarian mind, Francis claims, since "the very idea of 'common'" must be rejected by libertarians because it constricts the freedom of at least some individuals.

In all of this, Pope Francis repeatedly misses the mark. 

The "Homo Economicus" and "Extreme Individualism" Straw Men 

In his critique, Francis appears to be merely repeating left-wing talking points that have been around for many years and rely on creating a crude cartoon version of libertarianism. Indeed, Francis is doing to liberalism what many critics of Christianity have been doing for centuries. As C.S. Lewis once noted about some critics of Christianity, "Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack." Francis is employing a similar method, albeit with a different target. 

Here at mises.org, we've dealt with these claims before, thanks to George Monbiot at The Guardian who has taken a special interest in attacking the liberal ideology for causing every ill under the sun whether it be poverty or loneliness. Indeed, Monbiot has been something of a mini-Francis in promulgating the anti-liberal party line on how liberalism destroys all other human values and reduces human beings to a state of little more than profit-seeking, dead-eyed units of capital. Much of this begins with the idea that liberalism demands that our view of humanity be reduced to seeing everyone as a profit maximizing machine, known as "homo economicus."

Monbiot writes: 

Our dominant ideology [liberalism] is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested — that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others. Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being — Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal.

The only problem here — a problem for both Monbiot and Pope Francis — is that the idea of "homo economicus" as a liberal model for humans who allegedly seek maximum profit has always been a straw man and has nothing to do with actual markets and liberal ideology. 

Not surprisingly, arch liberal Ludwig von Mises understood exactly this, writing in Human Action

It was a fundamental mistake ... to interpret economics as the characterization of the behavior of an ideal type, the homo oeconomicus. According to this doctrine traditional or orthodox economics does not deal with the behavior of man as he really is and acts, but with a fictitious or hypothetical image. It pictures a being driven exclusively by "economic" motives, i.e., solely by the intention of making the greatest possible material or monetary profit. Such a being does not have and never did a counterpart in reality; it is a phantom of a spurious armchair philosophy. No man is exclusively motivated by the desire to become as rich as possible; many are not at all influenced by this mean craving. It is vain to refer to such an illusory homunculus in dealing with life and history.

Every insightful liberal theorist — Mises included — has fully accepted that human beings have motivations and values outside the marketplace, and no one is — nor should they be — motivated strictly by profit maximization.

RELATED: "The Homo Economicus Straw Man" by Ryan McMaken

In reality, human society is extremely varied and complex. Culture, religion, ethnic identity, language, and a host of other variables exist outside of markets, and no respectable liberal claims that markets or the pursuit of monetary profit should eclipse all these other factors that influence human values. 

Liberalism has never been in conflict with these facts about human nature and human society. But, for the the anti-market ideologue, such as Monbiot and Francis, liberalism somehow dictates how everyone should live their daily lives, and thus makes us lonely and despairing in the process. 

Monbiot continues: 

There are plenty of secondary reasons for this [loneliness], but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.

This is simply another way of stating Francis's thesis that liberalism trashes the idea of a "good life" outside of the market activity. 

Again, these whole argument relies on the "extreme individualism" caricature of liberalism. 

RELATED: "Must Libertarians Be Individualists?" by Ryan McMaken

The very idea stems from a (possibly willful) misunderstanding of the difference between methodological individualism and individualism in practice

This is especially unforgivable for a Catholic cleric like Francis since Catholic philosophers and theologians were pioneers in emphasizing the importance of the individual. That is, Christian theology is closely connected to the idea of an individual's personal relationship with God, and that a person is responsible for his own actions and moral choices. 

Many strains of liberalism — which draw heavily on Christian ideas of individualism and morality — employ a similar sort of methodological individualism in that only individuals make choices. Moreover, human beings derive their rights from their status as individual human beings and not as members of a group, whether an ethnic group or a state.

None of this, however, suggests that people must be individualistic in lifestyle or that human beings must reject the idea of living in community with others. 

After all, it is entirely consistent with the ideas of liberalism to live in a large extended family, to join a commune, or live in a densely-populated urban setting with others. All that liberals ask is that the decision to live a certain way is made voluntarily and without being coerced. A person commits no illiberal act when he gives away all his possessions to live in a monastery shared with others. There is nothing contrary to liberalism in offering free room and board to strangers or family members. There is no group or individual activity that is verboten by liberalism so long as the participants are cooperating freely. 

In fact, Mises — who has been attacked by Monbiot for his "neoliberalism" — assumed that individuals would come together to achieve common goals. In Human Action, Mises notes that "Every step by which an individual substitutes concerted action for isolated action results in an immediate and recognizable improvement in his conditions." 

Moreover, according to Mises, 

The advantages derived from peaceful cooperation ... are universal. They immediately benefit every generation ... [f]or what the individual must sacrifice for the sake of society he is amply compensated by greater advantages.

Of course, living cooperatively and seeking a "common good" in solidarity with others brings many advantages, materially and otherwise. Virtually no one denies this except some anti-social misanthropes who can hardly be blamed on any particular ideology. 

So where is this liberalism-inspired rejection of community and the common good that Francis imagines exists out there sweeping the globe? It doesn't exist.

If Francis does wish to identify institutions that breed conflict, poverty, war, and social disintegration, he'd do much good by turning his attention to states, to central banks, and to the global machinery of coercion and war that works daily to undo the great progress being made every day thanks to markets and other forms of peaceful and voluntary cooperation.