Edited by Peter J. Boettke
Chapter 1: Only Individuals Choose
Anthony J. Evans* 1.1 Introduction When Margaret Thatcher declared that, “there is no such thing as society”, she seemed to exemplify a political philosophy that praised self-centred individualism ahead of collective solidarity. If ever a phrase became synonymous with a deeply contested economic doctrine, that was it. But intentionally or otherwise, she stumbled upon one of the most important philosophical discussions of the twentieth century. If only individuals choose, then the way to understand cultural concepts such as “society” is through an analysis of individual action. It might appear counterintuitive, but if we lose sight of individuals, “society” has no meaning. The degree to which individuals are the products of their social environment is one of the perennial issues of the social sciences. To what extent should we place the individual at the centre of economic analysis? What causal role should we give to cultural factors? Was Adolphe Quetelet right to claim that, “society prepares the crime, and the guilty person is only the instrument”?1 This debate lies at the heart of not only how social scientists should conduct research, but also our understanding of how free individuals conduct human action, and thus confronts our conception of the human condition. Both the genesis and subsequent rise of methodological individualism are indelibly tied to the development of Austrian economics; however, the most common use has strayed from these routes. Rather than provide both a defence and yet another restatement of one particular interpretation of methodological individualism, I will acknowledge the...
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