EconLog small logo  

Searching for the Individual

I Win My Long-Run Gas Price Be... The Case Against Education<...

by Pierre Lemieux

North Koreans are oppressed and destitute. They have not known the Enlightenment, much less sung its virtues. So it is not surprising that a delegation from their government would look anything but individualistic.

N Korea.jpg During the Winter Olympics in South Korea, an official group of North Korean cheerleaders, sitting together in the arena, forbidden to speak to anybody, protected from journalists by their government's praetorians, attracted the public's attention as much as the competing athletes. The Wall Street Journal called them "weapons of mass distraction." Wearing identical clothes and sporting the same smile, the young women, like child-like automatons, performed choreographed chants including patriotic songs. The NBC twitter feed ran a video of the group, commenting that "this is so satisfying to watch." I wondered how this regimentation in service of state propaganda could be so satisfying.

In other images, the cheerleaders, just like North Korean politicos, wore much larger flag pins than American politicians, which illustrates the race to the bottom that nationalistic politics naturally becomes.

The Olympics have not been immune to blind nationalism. As an extreme case, it's worth watching a video of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. One can argue that these games channel nationalism into less destructive competition, and that may be true. But they may also serve to exacerbate nationalism. That the winning athletes drape themselves in national flags blurs individual performance. At any rate, the North Korean cheerleaders represented the exact opposite of individualism.

The very weekend the South Korean Olympics opened, the Wall Street Journal's Saturday Essay was adapted from a forthcoming book by Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard University psychologist, titled "The Enlightenment Is Working." The essay celebrated the Enlightenment's values and their impact on today's life. Against the usual gloom, Pinker argued that never has the world been more democratic, wealthier, and more promising for.... For whom? That's what was surprising in Pinker's piece: nowhere does the word "individual" appear. But there are many "people" and "nations."

North Koreans are oppressed and destitute. They have not known the Enlightenment, much less sung its virtues. So it is not surprising that a delegation from their government would look anything but individualistic. But we could have expected Pinker, who defends the Enlightenment, not to ignore individuals. Of course, his actual book, which is not available as I write this post, might not commit this error.

The Enlightenment was the European ideological movement that, in the 17th and 18th century, emphasized reason, human flourishing, and individual liberty. It provided the intellectual foundation of the American Revolution. It brought the individual at the center of the social, economic, and political scene. Even when Enlightenment thinkers developed arguments for the state, their goal was to secure the individual's property or to found the state on "the consent of every individual," as John Locke wrote. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes "an individual," "the individual," or "individuals" nearly a hundred times.

As usual, matters are a bit more complicated than they look at first sight. The ancient Greeks started the rationalist movement that would ultimately culminate in the Enlightenment. And as Friedrich Hayek argued, we might have to distinguish between a true and a false individualism, between an individualism respectful of conventions and one bent on social engineering (see his "Individualism: True and False," in Individualism and Economic Order). Yet, it is difficult to deny that the Enlightenment was a crucial step in the rise of individualism.

A Panglossian analyst could argue that individualism is more present in today's culture and public discourse than at any time in the past, at least in countries that were influenced by classical liberalism. But this is not obvious. In order to test the hypothesis that individualism has not progressed during the past few decades, let's use Google's Ngram Viewer. An "Ngram" is an expression composed of N words, where N can be equal to 1. The Ngram Viewer plots for every year, in the five million books digitalized by Google, the number of occurrences of specified Ngrams as a proportion of all Ngrams of the same order (that is, the same value of N or the same number of words).

Reproduced from the Ngram Viewer, my chart follows the evolution from 1700 to 2008 (the last year available) of three N-grams: "individualism" (a 1-gram), "an individual" (a 2-gram), and "the individual," (also a 2-gram). These three Ngrams appear on the chart as a percentage of all 1-gram (for "individualism"), and of all 2-grams (for "an individual" and "the individual"). The top line is the sum of the three Ngrams, and may be considered as describing the "linguistic individual." (The size and scale of the chart makes it difficult to read on this post, but you can view it and play with it directly on Ngram Viewer.) Not surprisingly, the linguistic individual thus defined grew rapidly from the middle of the 18th century. After three-quarters of a century, he retreated slightly for about 50 years until the last quarter of the 19th century. From then on, our linguistic individual grew rapidly again until the middle or the last quarter of the 20th century. After that, he went back to what he was at the time of World War I.

Final chart Individualism 436 pixels Econlog.png
Adding "individuals" (plural) to our collection of Ngrams does not materially change the picture. The linguistic individual clearly peaks around 1975, but it is not clear if the trend after this is flat or downwards.

This quantitative evidence of the decline of the individual during the last quarter- or half-century is admittedly very imperfect. We don't know if the sample of Google-digitalized books is representative of the universe of all books. The number of more recent books that have been digitalized is presumably limited by copyright laws, and the relative nature of Google's Ngrams (which are always proportional to all Ngrams of the same order) may not compensate for this bias. Other limitations exist. The only thing we can say is that this evidence does not contradict the hypothesis that individualism has been declining for the past several decades.

Another objection is that people's actual lives demonstrate a continuous rise of individualism. Individuals are less interested in politics, as shown by the small number who vote. These atomistic individuals seem to have retreated into consumption and hedonism, engrossed in their personal computers, their iPhones, and their cult of health and the body (which is obviously not the collective body or the body politic!). Could it be that even if the use of words related to individualism shows a decline, flesh-and-blood individuals have come to practice the doctrine more intensely in their daily lives?

This is not sure. The one-half of the public who choose to vote in America give their support to two political parties that think much more in terms of groups, race, and nation than in terms of individuals. And as French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky argued in his book L'ère du vide, what looks like individualist private lives is more narcissism than the reflection of any individualistic philosophy. Narcissus is the center of the world and demands that everybody and the state help him.

The latest indication of individualism's recession lies in political correctness and its offshoots. Individuals are defined by the groups they belong to. Their identity is collective. Only groups are defended, including against any individual deviance such as free speech. The multiplication of perceived "genders" is not a process of individuation but, on the contrary, an attempt to define new group identities to be protected by antidiscrimination laws and other forms of state coercion. Eugene Volokh's blog post on the proliferation of claimed genders is worth reading. We may also observe a subtle collectivization of language (or at least of the English language) in the substitution of the plural pronoun "their" for the singular "his" or "her." What looks like a promotion of women might be, in theory or in practice, an attack on individualism.

Such movements undermine not only political individualism, but also, more deeply, methodological individualism--the basic idea that we need to start from the individual to understand groups and societies.

Comments and Sharing


COMMENTS (5 to date)
Thomas Boyle writes:

I think you'll find that "they" as the gender-nonspecific third party singular pronoun predates political correctness by several centuries - it's been in use since the 14th Century at least.

Criticism of singular "they" began only in the 18th century, or thereabouts, on the grounds of number agreement - an issue easily resolved if "they" is nonspecific as to both gender and number.

Hazel Meade writes:

I agree about identity politics, but the proliferation of gender identity terms isn't necessarily political. It has more to do with reducing social coercion of individuals and creating space for individuals to define their own identity, than it has to do with politics. We should be applauding the proliferation of identity terms, since it makes room for individuals to define themselves in ever more individualistic ways. A teenager today has more freedom to do stuff that isn't gender normative without being thought strange - which is good for straight kids as well.
Also, I suspect conservatives would argue the exact opposite - that all of the alternate gender identities are an example of narcissistic individualism gone mad, not too much collectivism.

IVV writes:

I've been thinking of two schools of thought regarding gender identity politics.

First, there's an attempt to categorize every possible difference and attitude in its own specific category. This seems to be the more commonly pursued path among younger people.

I'm more familiar growing up with one where broad categories are more fluid and flexible. This comes from the era where children were expressly taught "girls can do this too" and so one's internal interests and feelings didn't need to change based on one's other characteristics.

The specific category method can help by giving people language to talk about their differences and personal experiences with a bit more effective granularity, but at the risk of isolating and siloing groups from each other. The broad category method, on the other hand, allows people to be members of a larger group without being required to match all the characteristics of that group, but there is potentially loss in being able to explain oneself and seek out what one needs to cope and/or thrive. It's essentially a digital vs. analog difference.

...And the school of thought where other people are expected to conform to one's own philosophy can just plain go away.

Peter Gerdes writes:

It's entirely possible that all you are seeing in that dataset is an effect of the fact that only certain kinds of older books get digitized. I strongly suspect that the books google chooses to digitize roughly match the distribution of books you'll find in your local library.

As in your local library I suspect, the books will include a huge selection of technical works, trash fiction, encyclopedias and how-to manuals published relatively recently. In contrast only those older books with some degree of staying power or continued interest get kept. Thus, you'll see works about philosophy or the relationship of the individual to society published in the 60s but not the guides to radio repair or genre fiction that didn't stand up to the test of time.

So it seems completely plausible that the trend line is an increasing focus on individuals/individualism but that the fraction of mentions drops as it gets drowned out by other kinds of content (e.g. fiction, technical works).


More generally, its not even clear what it means to have more or less individualism. Is joining up in political parties a loss of individualism or people choosing to be more expressive under a structural constraint that demands they pick one of two options to make an effective difference?

Pierre Lemieux writes:

@Peter Gerdes: Yes, we need to know more about the sample of books digitized by Google.

On another topic, also related to my post, John Gray has written a devastating and partly Hayekian critique of Pinker's book: see

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top