On free individual choice and collective inaction

PIC-blog post-collective inactionThe logic of contemporary economies is built on our belief in the virtues of ‘free’ individual choice. Adherents of this view, which include (most) governments, corporations and many individuals, believe that regulating individual choice is bad for the economy. However, among this syndicate, some do recognise the pitfalls of employing this principle in the development and growth of institutions relating to education and health. In economic parlance, the ‘failure’ of individual choice in yielding a socially beneficial outcome is termed a market failure – suggesting that markets, in general, do not fail. It is important to state the logic of individual choice explicitly owing to its enthralling grip over contemporary political and economic imagination. John Maynard Keynes in his 1926 critical essay ‘The End of Laissez-Faire’ makes explicit this logic: ‘by the working of natural laws individuals pursuing their own interests with enlightenment, in condition of freedom, always tend to promote the general interest at the same time!

How did private vice transform into private interest (and choice)? And how is it that private choice is at the core of today’s economics and politics? Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and Interests:Political Arguments for Capitalism Before its Triumph (1977) provides us with one compelling historical account. The idea that free individual choice results in socially beneficial outcomes is now commonplace. This was not always the case. In fact, Montesquieu, the French philosopher, wrote about the socially beneficial outcomes from pursuing honour which ‘brings life to all the parts of the body politic’ and ‘it turns out that everyone contributes to the general welfare while thinking that he works for his own interests.’ By the seventeenth century, it was recognised that the ‘disruptive passions of men’ could not be restrained by moral philosophers and their religious counterparts although attempts to convert the disruptive passions into ‘constructive’ passions were already underway. For instance, anticipating Adam Smith, Pascal, another French philosopher, writes that man ‘has managed to tease out of concupiscence an admirable arrangement’ and ‘so beautiful an order.’ Subsequently, the idea of ‘countervailing passions’ started gaining currency in political thought. However, as Hirschman also notes, what forces actually ensure that groups (of individuals) with conflicting passions/interests result in a gain for all? If the contemporary politics of climate change is taken as an example, the outcome runs contrary to such an expectation.

Today, the widespread belief especially among policy makers is that unregulated individual choices – whether as a consumer or a producer – will ensure that the fruits of economic growth trickle down to the poorest person. However as Keynes warned us very persuasively in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), this belief is flawed and we need government intervention so as to eliminate labour unemployment. Clearly, the pursuit of individual gains has not brought social gains. Mainstream economics accommodates this big flaw in marginalist economics under the label of externalities. Unintended consequences of economic actions may be positive or negative for the society. In the determination of output and employment, Keynes pointed out that the tendency towards full employment (a more modest claim than public interest or social welfare) is a fluke in liberal capitalism. To put it differently, unemployment of labour is the expected consequence in liberal capitalism.Both theoretically and empirically, all evidence points to one inescapable fact: liberal capitalism does not result in the full employment of labour. Another charge by Keynes against this view is that it commits the fallacy of composition: what is good for an individual may not be good for the society. For example, while saving is good for an individual, if all individuals in a society save, who will consume the output?

Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), his recent* work of non-fiction, forcefully argues that the paralysis of climate change politics lies in our idea of individual freedom; our ‘calculus of liberty’ has no place for nature and natural systems. How then can our idea of freedom – a product of Enlightenment thinking – and its close relative, democracy, ever effectively address our environmental issues? A solution to our environmental problems warrants collective and concerted action. This is consistently absent in current politics, which has been reduced to individual morals and choices. Indeed, the onus of resisting environmental degradation has been passed on to the individual by appealing to her morals. As Ghosh puts it in his The Great Derangement, ‘This then is the paradox and the price of conceiving of fiction and politics in terms of individual moral adventures: it negates possibility itself.’ Both fiction and politics, at their core, are, or rather, ought to be about possibilities –possibilities for the individual as well as the society as a whole.

The idea that free pursuit of individual interest yields a socially beneficial outcome is a flawed piece of political and economic imagination. Unfortunately, this principle does not function in today’s capitalist societies and the belief that it does is a dangerous one to safeguard. The idea that free individual choices yield socially beneficial outcomes must therefore be challenged in all possible spaces committed to documenting and exploring socioeconomic possibilities, particularly in humanities, journalism, literature, and the social sciences.

*I thank Vivek Nenmini for pointing out an error. Earlier, I had written that The Great Derangement is Ghosh’s first work of non-fiction.