In his 12 Rules For Life, Dr. Jordan Peterson observes that our current world is “dividing and polarizing and drifting towards chaos”. He advises that, to avoid catastrophe, we each bring forward the truth as we see it, and reveal it for others to see, so that we can find common ground and proceed together. This is the paradox of Individualism. It is the only way to find common ground.
1 Everyone Follows Their Own Individual Conscience.
Individualists avoid the lure of collectives, who cloak their vice in expressions of virtue, promising to protect your interests, when, really, they have only their special interests in mind. Individualists divorce themselves from government, school districts, political parties, unions, identity groups, organized religion, and any collective that requires an individual to align his or her thinking with that of the group. It doesn’t mean that we refuse to pay taxes or fail to stop at red lights or keep our children out of school. It does mean that we examine our own conscience to find the truth as we see it, not as groupthink tells us to see it.
2 All property is private property, so I know what’s mine and respect what’s yours.
Following your conscience is philosophy of individual life. Private property is economics, which Ludwig von Mises described as the philosophy of human life and action, the essential part of civilization. Civilization requires just a few general rules to make it work. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t initiate violence against a fellow human being. Distinguishing between what’s mine and what’s yours, and thereby differentiating our spheres of individual responsibility, is one of those standing rules to live by, expressed in private property and property rights.
3 Everyone is free to try their best, to see what they can achieve.
When we know what is ours individually, including our body and mind as well as our private property, we can orient ourselves properly and set ourselves towards success. It turns out that in a free market based on property rights, success is tied to serving others. We succeed via empathy with others’ needs, and taking action to address those needs with our services. We try to find a different and better way to deliver our services via what Adam Smith called the division of labor and David Hume called the partition of employments. We all find our specialty and our niche. We cultivate unique knowledge. We do what we do better than anyone else can do it. We take pride in our differentiation, and meaning in the responsibility of developing it.
4 Each individual contribution is tested and corrected by others.
How do we know if our efforts to serve others actually create value in those others’ eyes? We get market feedback. Others tell us, by buying or not buying, demonstrating customer loyalty or not, paying the price we ask or bargaining it down. The feedback can take different forms – attendance at our church, likes on our Facebook page, invitations to social events. All of this feedback falls under the heading of testing and correcting our best efforts. Individualists embrace the data; we’re glad the market is free enough to provide it. We use it as a means to improve and to help us reach our goal. If we are not able to get individual feedback – if the data that’s reaching us is filtered through someone else’s lens, or is “positioned” to us by some collective ideology – we are not fully participating and we are unable to achieve our highest purpose and meaning.
5 No-one is qualified to pass final judgment on others’ capacities or what they can do.
Should we all be equal? Certainly not in what we can achieve, because, in the division of labor, we each want to demonstrate that we can provide better service to others and be worthy of our hire. This is how individuals find their own level. To quote Dr. Jordan Peterson again, there is “a brutal principle of unequal distribution” anywhere that creative production is required. A handful of authors sell all the books. Four classical composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky) wrote virtually all the music played by modern orchestras. Equality of outcomes is not available to us. But each of us can strive to be the best at what we do, to contribute as much as we can to the need of all others, and thereby achieve as much as we can, without anyone else telling us when to stop, or how far we can go. Individualism is opposed to all privilege, and on all limits to what able individuals can achieve.
6 The individual’s reward corresponds to the value of the service rendered to others.
When market feedback indicates approval of the individual’s efforts, it’s a signal for further entrepreneurial action. Do more, reach more customers, treat more patients, raise more money for your non-profit, add new features to make the service even better. If the signal remains strong, keep adding. That signal is profit, both monetary and psychic. If the marketplace perceives a continuing value in the entrepreneur’s service offering, there’s potential for a long-lasting profit stream. Most of that profit is typically ploughed into further investment to enhance service quality; or, alternatively, competitors invest in new improvements. In all cases, the customer – and society – wins.
Individualism does not refer to the existence of isolated or self-contained or selfish individuals. Social order is the result of individual actions, because each of us follows incentives to contribute as much as possible to the needs of others. The way we take part in the more extended and complex social process is through the market for our services. Individualism is an entrepreneurial order that creates a thriving society for all.