“The world is what it is today because of individualism”
these were the wise words of my macroeconomics lecturer Prof Chetty. Before presenting the lecture of the evening, my lecturer normally gave a talk on a topic that was not related to our syllabus, I was so intrigued when he spoke about individualism. He made an astonishing claim about how the root of all things, be it wars, unemployment, poverty and etc., were merely cause by individualist behaviours of people. He then went on and said economics teaches us individualism, meaning economics teaches us that people behave in an individualist manner.
For example firms in all industries are basically in business to maximise their “individual” profits and minimise their costs, an entrepreneur may start a business to eventually accumulate “individual” wealth, a parent may send their child to the best schools to hopefully rip the reward in future, and a politician may campaign for people’s vote to eventually end up with a relatively better job and have state privileges. In essence we are all doing things that will benefit us in the end and everyone wants to be better than the next.
The concept of individualism was brought to light in the 18th century by Adam Smith, who claimed that in a competitive economy, an individual acting on his or her self-interest will promote public interest (Nafziger, 2006:124). This means self-interest has an invisible hand that unintentional impact on the welfare of society. I agree with Smith that individualistic behaviours tend to benefit the public, in a sense that it encourages innovation, entrepreneurship, accumulation of skills and to some extend good governance. However Smith and other economists from the classical school suggest that the economy is self-fixing therefore there is no room for government intervention, which is not the case in the real world, because the government plays a pivotal role in all economies.
On the flip side most social problems are rooted by individualism. Self-interest makes people think they are superior than others, it can fuel greed and drive people into becoming less reliant of each other. Hence we live in a world filled with wars, hate and injustice- every religious group thinks it is better than the next, every race thinks highly of themselves, this individualistic thinking even spills over to gender and age groups. Basically individualism makes people less tolerant of each other, which tarnishes world peace. As Mother Teresa said, if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other (Brainy quotes, 2001).
To be honest I love the fact that we live in a world where there’s room for independent thinkers. We cannot always conform to the norm nor constantly look up to “influencers”. Therefore let’s be encouraged to be innovative, entrepreneurs and accumulate skills, so that we can hopefully have a positive impact on society. However let’s always be reminded that we need each other and never allow the spirit of Ubuntu (humanity) to die. After all Smith argued that people are self-interested but naturally like to help others.
ReferencesMother Teresa (2001). Mother Teresa Quotes. Brainyquote. Available from: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/mothertere107032.htmlNafziger,W.E. (2006). Economic Development. Cambridge University Press: New York.
A special thanks to Prof S. Chetty for inspiring this topic.