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How the West Invented Individualism – Article by Roger McKinney

How the West Invented Individualism – Article by Roger McKinney

The New Renaissance Hat
Roger McKinney
April 1, 2015

Inventing the Individual, by Larry Siedentop, Belknap Press, 2014

I lived in Morocco a few decades ago and needed some furniture for our apartment. A college student I had befriended, Hamid, offered to take my cash and negotiate with the dealer for me while I drank coffee in a nearby qahwa because, as he said, the price of the furniture would triple if the merchant glimpsed an American within a block of his store.

I hesitated to take Hamid’s offer only because I didn’t want to put him to so much trouble, but he mistook my pause for distrust. So he assured me that he could not cheat me because I had eaten dinner with him and his family and therefore enjoyed a status similar to that of a family member.

No Moroccan can cheat a family member or anyone who has eaten at their table. I gave Hamid my cash and later returned home to find a nice selection of furniture at a good, Moroccan, price.

Later, I met the owner of a construction firm who enlightened me further on business ethics in Morocco. He told me he spent a large part of his time thwarting the efforts of suppliers, customers, and employees to cheat him. The cleverness that went into dreaming up new ways to cheat him surprised me. He confirmed what Hamid had told me: cheating others is not considered unethical at all but a sign of an astute businessman. But cheating family members is immoral.

Moroccan business ethics might be appalling to westerners, but ancient Greeks and Romans would have understood and applauded them according to Larry Siedentop in his latest book, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.

In Siedentop’s words, the book is “… a story about the slow, uneven and difficult steps which have led to individual moral agency being publicly acknowledged and protected, with equality before the law and enforceable ‘basic’ rights.”

Like Moroccans, ancient Greeks and Romans cared little for non-family members. Those “… outside the family circle were not deemed to share any attributes with those within. No common humanity was acknowledged, an attitude confirmed by the practice of enslavement.”

The past is a foreign country but foreign countries are more foreign than politicians and economists in the West understand. The prize for the reader in Siedentop’s package is the understanding that the individualism at the core of classical liberalism is a new and rare gem.

When we fail to recognize its uniqueness, we project onto past and modern cultures our own values. Siedentop explains the failures of attempts at nation building by US politicians in the Middle East as well as the aborted efforts at economic development by mainstream economists without mentioning either.

Classical liberal individualism did not exist in the ancient world. Siedentop wrote, “Since the sixteenth century and the advent of the nation-state, people in the West have come to understand ‘society’ to mean an association of individuals.” For the ancient Romans and Greeks society consisted of a collection of extended families. The heads of the families, including family-based clans and tribes, held all the power and made all of the decisions. Only the heads of families could become citizens in the polis.

Antiquity had no notion of the powers of the government being limited by the rights of individuals, even for family heads. “Citizens belonged to the city, body and soul.” Women, children, slaves and non-citizens held no rights and lived only at the pleasure of the family head.

The ancients had no concept of the equality of man, either. Even for Plato and Aristotle, a natural hierarchy of humanity existed, much like the caste system of India. Some were born to rule, others to serve or fight. Submitting to the needs of the city as determined by the family heads was the only reason for existence and any person who failed to contribute to the cause could be legally killed — or worse — exiled. Politics and war became the noblest occupations while commerce was held in contempt.

Siedentop devotes just the first chapter to the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, but I think it’s the most important chapter because it forces the reader to face the stark contrast between that culture and the culture of the modern West. The story of the painfully slow gestation of individualism from its conception in early Christianity through the monastic movements, revolutions in church government, the creation of secular space, and finally its birth during the Reformation is rewarding, but the real value of the book lies in the understanding that this process took place only in the West and nowhere else in the world in history.

To grasp the impact of Siedentop’s thesis, readers need to place it alongside the works of Helmut Schoeck, Geert Hofstede, and Shalom H. Schwartz. Schoeck informs us that envy is the organizing principle of society and the enemy of individualism. Hofstede and Schwartz show that the distinguishing feature of the West today is the classical liberal individualism that the rest of the world not only does not share, but abhors. Within the West, the US stands out as an extreme outlier on individualism.

Of course, to round out the topic people need to read Hayek’s essay, “Individualism: True and False” to understand how socialists created a pseudo-individualism that is for the most part a resurrection of ancient Greek and Roman collectivism.

Classical liberal individualism does not exist in the modern world outside of the US and Europe, and it is dying here. The collectivist cultures of the rest of the world differ little from those of ancient Greece and Rome. If economists and politicians understood the uniqueness of classical liberalism, they would quit trying to pour new wine into old wine skins, which causes the old to explode. And they would mourn the rise of socialism.

Roger McKinney is an analyst for an HMO and teaches economics for a small private college.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

The Importance of Free Speech to Human Progress – Article by Iain Murray

The Importance of Free Speech to Human Progress – Article by Iain Murray

The New Renaissance Hat
Iain Murray
January 10, 2015

From Principia Mathematica to Charlie Hebdo


The massacre of 12 cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris this week should remind us to ask: Why is free speech so important?

It is more than an inalienable individual right; it is fundamental to human progress. That is why it is one of the most important institutions of liberty.

When we look at the history of the freedom of speech in the West, we see that early on it was tied up with the freedom of the press, which is why the terms are used interchangeably in American constitutional theory. Yet, for most of the West’s history, the idea of “publishing” was meaningless. Books were copied by hand, first by scribes hired by Roman nobles to copy books they liked, then by monks in medieval scriptoria, with the more ancient texts copied as practice for copying the more important religious texts. As a result, many texts were lost, with others surviving by mere chance.

Having assumed the role of guardian of learning, the medieval church was ill-disposed toward innovations that threatened its position. The suppression of early English versions of the Bible is a case in point. Information traveled slowly, impeding the progress of intellectual innovation.

The printing press changed all that, as it brought about the first series of real struggles over freedom of speech. Ideas could travel more quickly, and literacy exploded.

As people could finally read the Bible for themselves, Reformation movements grew all over Europe. Then they took to using the press to spread other ideas. In response, the church and its allies in positions of power took steps to restrain this new free press. In fact, early copyright law arose from efforts to regulate the production of printers.

It should not surprise us that early libertarians were often printers. “Freeborn John” Lilburne was first arrested for printing and circulating unlicensed books.

The great poet John Milton wrote perhaps the first great defense of free speech when the English republican Parliament reintroduced censorship via the Licensing Order of 1643 (censorship had effectively been abolished in 1640 along with the Star Chamber, which tried Lilburne). In his Areopagitica, Milton passionately demanded freedom of the press and tolerance of heterodox publications, saying, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The licensing order lapsed in 1694 as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1685, which instituted a more liberal constitution in England and helped to inspire the American Revolution — and eventually the Bill of Rights and First Amendment. But the Areopagitica is still with us. Fittingly, the US Supreme Court cited it as an authority on the inherent value of false statements in the landmark case New York Times v. Sullivan:

Even a false statement may be deemed to make a valuable contribution to public debate, since it brings about “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Mill, On Liberty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1947), p. 15; see also Milton, Areopagitica, in Prose Works (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1959), vol. 2, p. 561.

The free press opened new communication channels for theoretical innovation. It is often noted that Sir Isaac Newton was born the day Galileo died. What enabled Newton to take Galileo’s experiments and turn them into modern physics was the printing press. Newton published Principia Mathematica in 1687, and revised it in 1713 and 1726. The book was published by the Royal Society, founded in Oxford in 1660, which essentially invented peer review (see this here fascinating series of videos on the society’s role in the invention of modern science). Newton’s book spread throughout Europe, which would not have been possible under earlier regimes where printing was tightly controlled.

Central to the principle of a free press is the right to be wrong — which enables peer review and criticism in the first place. It is also central to scientific and technological innovation and experimentation, and therefore also central to economic progress, which has led to the great explosion in human welfare we have seen over the last two centuries. Free speech allows more ideas to “have sex,” to use Matt Ridley’s phrase, and that is why societies that are frightened by the consequences of this ideological sexual revolution are those with the most severe censorship laws.

At this point, one might argue that it is absurd to compare a “blasphemous” cartoon to the Principia Mathematica. But that would be a mistake. As Stephen Law has written for the Center for Inquiry, the point of such cartoons is not to cause offense, but something far greater:

More often than not, the lampooning is done with intention of shattering, if only for a moment, the protective façade of reverence and deference that has been erected around some iconic figure or belief, so that we can all catch a glimpse of how things really are.

It is exactly that goal — to help us determine what actually is, rather than what is simply asserted — that free speech and free inquiry make possible. As an institution of liberty, free speech must be defended wherever it is attacked. (My colleague Hans Bader has written elsewhere about letting down our guard.) Those who seek to suppress free speech want to keep mankind mired in poverty and ignorance, subject to their own whims and beliefs. They cannot be allowed to succeed.

Iain Murray is vice president at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.