Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Possessive individualism

C. B. Macpherson was a political philosopher who placed a genuinely novel interpretation on the history of political thought in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke when the book appeared in 1962. Macpherson was a Canadian philosopher who influenced quite a few young scholars in the 1970s in North America and Great Britain. Macpherson offered the basis of a strong critique of a certain kind of liberalism -- the liberalism that places essentially the whole normative weight on the value of the individual and his/her liberties, and essentially no emphasis on the social obligations we all have towards each other. A first wave of criticism of narrow liberalism took this form:

The repair that was needed [to liberal theory] was one that would bring back a sense of the moral worth of the individual, and combine it again with a sense of the moral value of community, which had been present in some measure in the Puritan and Lockean theory. (2)

But Macpherson feels the need to go further:

The present study … suggests that the difficulties of modern liberal-democratic theory lie deeper than had been thought, that the original seventeenth-century individualism contained the central difficulty, which lay in its possessive quality. Its possessive quality is found in its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. The individual was seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of larger social whole, but as an owner of himself. The relation of ownership, having become for more and more men the critically important relation determining their actual freedom and actual prospect of realizing their full potentialities, was read back into the nature of the individual. the individual, it was thought, is free inasmuch as he is proprietor of his person and capacities. The human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession. Society becomes a lot of free equal individuals related to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they have acquired by their exercise. Society consists of exchange between proprietors. (3)

The individualism that Macpherson identifies is of a specific sort; it is "possessive" individualism. What does Macpherson mean by this? Here we have the heart of the theory of possessive individualism: the individual as solely an owner of himself. Here is his formulation late in the book:

  1. What makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the wills of others.
  2. Freedom from dependence on others means freedom from any relations with others except those relations which the individual enters voluntarily with a view to his own interest.
  3. The individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, for which he owes nothing to society.
  4. Although the individual cannot alienate the whole o fhis property in his own person, he may alienate his capacity to labour.
  5. Human society consists of a series of market relations.
  6. Since freedom from the wills of others is what makes a man human, each individual's freedom can rightfully be limited only by such obligations and rules as are necessary to secure the same freedoms for others.
  7. Political society is a human contrivance for the protection of the individual's property in his person and goods, and (therefore) for the maintenance of orderly relations of exchange between individuals regarded as proprietors of themselves. (263-4)

The core of the book is a set of interpretive chapters on Hobbes, Locke, the Levellers, and Harrington. These chapters are careful, detailed, and closely textual and contextual. The book puts forward a fairly simple theory: the British tradition of political philosophy expresses a rather particular ideology that is pre-philosophical. The ideology (possessive individualism) is a very specific conception of the individual and his/her roles in the social world. The philosophical theories that are built on that ideology give shape to that set of assumptions, but they are ill suited to recognizing or critiquing those assumptions. Macpherson highlights the interpretive challenge of discovering these underlying assumptions: "Where a writer can take it for granted that his readers will share some of his assumptions, he will see no need to set these out at the points in his argument where we, who do not share those assumptions automatically, think they should have been stated to make the argument complete" (5).

What is the social context of this ideology? It is the reality of market society:

These assumptions do correspond substantially to the actual relations of a market society. (4)

One of Macpherson's more indirect goals in his philosophy is to provide an intellectually sound foundation for the liberal democratic state -- a state that recognizes the worth of the individual while also recognizing the social obligations that we all have towards each other and that need to be expressed through the social programs of the state. Fundamentally, Macpherson is interested in helping formulate a political theory that lays a powerful normative base for social democracy.

Macpherson's interpretation of Hobbes's philosophy provides an interesting discussion of "models of society" that is worth drawing attention to. He suggests that Hobbes formulates three models of society: customary or status society; simple market society; and possessive market society (47-48).

The concept of possessive market society is neither a novel nor an arbitrary construction. It is clearly similar to the concepts of bourgeois or capitalist society used by Marx, Weber, Sombart, and others, who have made the existence of a market in labour a criterion of capitalism, and like their concepts it is intended to be a model or ideal type to which modern (i.e. post-feudal) European societies have approximated. (48)

What Macpherson means by a model here needs some careful interpretation. He refers to it as an "ideal type" in this passage. More specifically, a model is a specification of several key structural features of a social order. Here is the model of a customary or status society:

  1. The productive and regulative work of the society is authoritatively allocated to groups, ranks, classes, or persons.
  2. Each group, rank, class, or person is confined to a way of working, and is given and permitted only to have a scale of reward...
  3. There is no unconditional individual property in land.
  4. The whole labour force is tied to the land, or to the performance of allotted functions, or (in the case of slaves) to masters. (49)

Macpherson thinks that these four characteristics create a specific form of system behavior for societies that embody them: "From these properties of a status society certain characteristics follow" (49).

The most complex model is the possessive market society, with postulates defining allocation of work, rewards for work, enforcement of contract, individual rational maximizing, individual's property in his labour, individual ownership of land, individuals want more utility or power, individuals have differential energy, skill, or possessions. With these postulates (including institutions and actors), we get a certain kind of social functioning. This is an "aggregation dynamics" argument. In other terms, it is a micro-to-macro argument up the struts of Coleman's boat.

It is worthwhile drawing out the connections between possessive individualism and conservative libertarian political groups in the present. The Tea Party seems to be a contemporary descendant of this ideology. Taxation is theft; the state has no legitimate role beyond protecting individual security and property; government regulation of private business activity is an immoral intrusion on liberty and property; individuals possess liberties and property that the state cannot limit; individuals deserve what they own and owe nothing to society or other citizens. Justice is served by simply protecting the possessions of individual citizens. Robert Nozick seems to have represented many of these values in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Those who favor a more expansive vision of a democratic society have several core values that conflict with these: Individuals have obligations to other members of society; government has the responsibility of protecting the wellbeing of the least advantaged in society; government has the responsibility of protecting the public good against harmful effects of private activities; decisions about public policies can and should be made through effective institutions of democratic self-determination; inequalities of wealth and power need to be restrained to ensure the political voice of the whole of society. Taxation is legitimate for at least three different reasons: it is a legitimate policy tool for limiting wealth inequalities to levels consistent with democratic equality; it is a legitimate vehicle for redistributing income to satisfy the requirement of providing a social minimum; and it is legitimate as a source of revenue needed to accomplish the public functions of the state, including provision of public goods and regulation of environment, labor, air safety, food safety, and the like. Justice is served by creating a system of legislation and policy that ensures the dignity and democratic rights of all members of society. John Rawls expresses most of these value in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.

Our political sphere could still use a powerful and unifying theory providing a justification for these social democratic ideas. So Macpherson's voice is still relevant, almost fifty years later.

Here is a review of the book by the great English Marxist historian, Christopher Hill.


  1. “Our political sphere could still use a powerful and unifying theory providing a justification for these social democratic ideas.” What´s wrong with utilitarianism? Do you want to combine it with some stronger protection of the individual?


    Libertarians also think “Individuals have obligations to other members of society” – e.g. if I “own” a piece of land and don´t want you to walk across it, you shouldn´t do it or the police state (or the Night watchman state as they anachronistically call it) should punish you.

    Even under the assumption of self ownership, it is 1000 % impossible to arrive at this right to limit others without consequentalism arguments – but, strictly speaking (or is it completely obvious?), you of course can´t do that either since degrees don’t exist in a absolutistic (is this even a word? My English isn´t that good) hell.

    Furthermore, as soon as you start to walk down that slippery slope it is pretty obvious that you can´t have absolute rules but have to look at the context. It is a rather big difference in being allowed to prevent someone to walk across your field full of crops far out in the countryside with plenty of possibilities to go around - and to be e.g. allowed to deny people the possibility to leave their homes or to get to the hospital (and it would be hard to get much in the form of public roads in a free rider society).

  2. So nice to see someone post about MacPherson! This book is one fine piece of political thought, and a useful addition is his "Origins of English Individualism" which argues (more or less successfully, I believe) that English culture was remarkably individualist as early as visitors from the continent began remarking on it in the late Middle Ages. Interesting how this kind of important work has gone largely unnoticed for decades.

  3. Much of the more Hayekian, civil society style libertarianism is just as much enamored of obligations to others in society, they just don't think the state is the best way to go about it. In this sense social obligatin -> state power is a non sequitur.

  4. Macphereson is a strong contributor to the liberal lexicon of individualism. But as always just what individuals get to make the rules of the state ignores the plurality of society. This ignores a factual, emprical world where intricate rules are necessary to exist. there is no escape from the power of others only a mitigating rule set to curb that power.Framing arguments about "state" solutions is accusatory as any rule set is a state and is a power set.