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By: the devil on your shoulder

I’m the little voice in your head.

You see me every day; I’m invisible, but I’m probably wearing a beige trench coat and dark glasses. Perched on your shoulder. Sat on that one empty chair in your tutorial. With a pad of paper and a pen. Thoughtful and silent and just a little bit outraged.

I’m going prematurely grey, guys. It’s week 4, and it’s not looking good.

This week we have X, indignant, going on about individualism and why its reductionism will kill us all. I stayed wisely quiet (I don’t like having things thrown at me) but I found a pen and paper, and I thought I’d take the mic for a second.

Individualism makes sense methodologically, people- the world is made of individuals. I am not a collection of the groups I’m a part of. I start at the me and expand to the they, not the other way around. That’s how my economic decisions work.

The theory says selfish, rational, isolated individual. Am I a selfish person? I’d like to think I’m not. Am I rational? I should hope not. But I maximize utility- that’s what ‘selfish’ and ‘rational’ means in this context. You can be a utility-maximizing charity donator: there’s someone in a suit somewhere whose job it is to figure out how to appeal to the utility maximizing individual. Utility is how the decision is made; everyone, from the mega-rich to the bottom billion, maximizes utility.

Isolated is a contested point. What influences the decisions we make? A Robinson Crusoe-like desert island where our economic decisions are influenced by nothing BUT utility? Schumacher thought so; Hayek disagreed- that’s two giants of individualism at odds. Whoops. Hayek saw ‘methodological individualism’ encompassing not just the decisions of individuals but how those individuals relate to one another, and to the wider world around them. That makes sense to me.

Even if what I just said were all a right wing lie, it would still make methodological sense. In economics, we want to model reality. We want to break down the truths we experience to the bone so we can understand and fix problems. We learn from the other social sciences and apply. We want to start with the individual, because that’s what I am- that’s what the basis of this world is. 1+1+1+1+1+1, and the web between us.

I’ll compromise- we need a better understanding of individuals. But the individual is a good starting point- the best one we’ve got.

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