Political and Methodological Individualism
| Peter Klein |
Further to Nicolai’s post, it is also widely believed that methodological individualism — the chief explanatory principle of economics and rational-choice sociology and political science — implies or justifies political individualism or, even worse, some kind of metaphysical or ontological individualism. “But people are social beings!” cry the critics. Well, sure. Methodological individualism is simply the view that social phenomena should be explained, or understood, in terms of the values, beliefs, plans, and actions of the individual that make up the social whole. It makes no claims about the ultimate source of these values and beliefs, the degree to which people are influenced by society, etc. It is a principle of explanation, nothing more.
Here’s a plain statement from Schumpeter, the guy who coined the term “methodological individualism” (okay, he used methodische Individualismus, and borrowed the concept from Weber), writing in 1908:
[W]e must strictly differentiate between political and methodological individualism, as the two have virtually nothing in common. the former starts form the general assumption that freedom, more than anything, contributes to the development of the individual and the well-being of society as a whole and puts forward a number of practical propositions in support of this. The latter is quite different. It has no specific propositions and no prerequisites, it just means that it bases certain economic processes on the actions of individuals. Therefore the question really is: is it practical to use the individual as a basis and would there be enough scope in doing so, or would it be better, in view of specific problems and the national economy as a whole, to use society as a basis. This question is purely methodological and involves no important principle. The socialists can answer it in terms of methodological individualism and the political individualists in terms of their social concept of things, without getting into conflict with their convictions.
See also the Mises quotes discussed here.