Methodological Individualism and the Hamas Ruler

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If Hamas ruler Yahya Sinwar had learned methodological individualism, things would be different. He might have been tempted by a broader individualist philosophy and might have treated “his” people in Gaza better, including by not using them as human shields and not spending public money on tunnels. But even if he had only known methodological individualism, his life might not be on the line right now. That’s what we can deduce from a Wall Street Journal story that reports on Sinwar’s thinking (“Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar Who Studied Israel’s Psyche—and Is Betting His Life on What He Learned,” December 10, 2023). Not quoting him directly alas, the report says:

Now … the Hamas leader is betting he can force the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners and establish a permanent cease-fire. He’s relying on his judgment of Israeli society after two decades studying it in jail, learning Hebrew, watching the local news and getting inside the Israeli psyche.

There is no such thing as the “Israeli psyche,” so Sinwar must have read the wrong books or have read no books at all. Or perhaps it is the WSJ reporter who read the wrong books and put his words in Sinwar’s mouth—or, should I say, in Sinwar’s collective mouth. Israel is not a living organism with a brain of its own. Organicist and anthropomorphist beliefs about society have led to errors, tyranny, and tragedies (see a few examples in my “The Impossibility of Populism,” The Independent Review, Summer 2021).

Methodological individualism, the opposite of methodological holism, is a social-epistemological claim that society can only be understood by starting from the thoughts and actions of the individuals who compose it. Individuals and their interrelations make up the whole of society. A simple proof is that if all individuals of a society died, there would be nothing left of that society–except history, including the history of ideas but these were the ideas of individual minds. On the contrary, if a society disappears—imagine that all Israelis leave Israel and join the Jewish diaspora around the world—its individuals will continue to exist. They might be or become members of some other “society” or community, including virtual ones, but their previous territorial society would no longer exist nor would any “collective mind” that could have been imagined in it. Another way to express this idea: a whole—including a social whole—is not greater than its parts if we include in it the relations between the parts.

Any social science worth its salt and any successful attempt at rational understanding of society have been grounded in methodological individualism, at least since Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. Friedrich Hayek discusses methodological individualism in The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies in the Abuse of Reason (1952), notably the first part. In his 1946 article “Individualism: True and False,” reproduced in his book Individualism and Economic Order (1948), he argues that methodological individualism does not necessarily imply an individualist political philosophy. At any event, the whole of economics and liberal political economy in Adam Smith’s tradition is grounded in methodological individualism.

One can of course make errors while studying society under the lense of methodological individualism. Hobbes provides an example, as he believed that rational individuals would want to grant illimited power to the state. Methodological individualism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding society (“society” including the economy and politics).

Methodological individualism is useful not only for understanding whole societies but also any social subgroup such as, say, a social class. The borders of societies and groups are somewhat arbitrary anyway. Karl Marx was so bad at understanding social classes and predicting the future of “the proletariat” precisely because he was a holist thinker and did not try to comprehend a social class from the bottom up, by starting from the subjective preferences and incentives of the individuals who compose this collective abstraction. Influences play a role, but they are influences from some individuals over others.

Even to understand military tactic, methodological individualism is necessary. In their article “An Economic Theory of Military Tactic: Methodological Individualism at War,” (Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 3 [1982], pp. 225-242), Geoffrey Brennan and Gordon Tullock notably wrote:

Armies must be analyzed as collections of independent individuals who are, in some sense, as much at war with one another and their own leaders as they are with enemy forces. …

The basic point here is that there may exist means of deploying forces, using terrain and so on–all standard parts or military strategy as connventionally conceived–that serve not so much to increase physical strength vis-à-vis one’s enemy as they do to circumvent the ‘free rider’ incentives within one’s own forces. …

It is an understanding that springs naturally from an individualistic approach to military science. And in our view, that individualistic approach is, here as elsewhere, the uniquely appropriate one for the study of human conduct.

It is a good article to familiarize oneself with the economic way of thinking, which is grounded in methodological individualism.

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