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Critical Thoughts on Matt Ridley, Individualism, and Innovation as a Collective Process

Some thoughts on Matt Ridley’s take on individualism and the collective from his discussion with Adam Mossoff on his book How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom:

  • Innovation as a collective process is not a knock against individualism as Ridley’s “lone-wolf” conception of individualism makes it. Ridley sees “individualism” as doing things entirely by oneself. I see “unrugged individualism” as a straw-man. Individualism means one takes an independent, first-hand attitude in one’s thinking and decision-making. It means not bowing down to others when one’s mind thinks otherwise, and willing to “stand-alone” when one’s mind determines this is the best course of action. In any group or collective under-taking, it is the “individualist” who is willing to buck the trend and think differently, which provides the intellectual “mutation” for the development of new ideas.
  • To say there is a “collective brain” is not reality, but a metaphor, much like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” I think both conceptions, though poetic, can hide the operations of the market rather than explaining them. This is why methodological individualism, favored by Professors Mises and Hayek, the latter that Ridley so approvingly quotes is so important.
  • A group, or collective (whether association, society, corporation, etc.) is not fundamental. A group is made of individuals. It is individuals that exist. A collection is a collection of something. The unit is the individual. The problem with political “collectivism” is that that it entirely forgets this.
  • In any collective undertaking, different individuals perform different actions towards the achievement of a commonly agreed-upon goal. Each individual is making an individual contribution that advances and builds on the work of others – and more often than not some, individuals contribute more than others and some less.
  • The “heroic” inventor does not exist in a vacuum, but one needs to be careful not to slip into the “You didn’t build that!” attitude popularized by political collectivists like President Obama. Innovators do rely on the efforts and knowledge of those before them (“stands on their shoulders.”) What makes them heroic is the results they do produce by their efforts, as individuals, which in turn contributes to the process. The success of a group undertaking is that such individuals are able to coordinate their individual efforts together toward a shared goal.
  • Ridley states that knowledge is not stored in individual heads, but knowledge is stored between them. I think a more accurate formulation would be: knowledge is conceptualized and stored inside an individual’s head and is shared between them. (It can then be stored in that wonderful innovation: the book).
  • This is not to disagree that knowledge is dispersed, but to point out that it is dispersed among the minds of various individuals, which is why free marketsĀ  — where individuals are left free to disagree and act against the desires of others so long as they do not violate their rights through the initiation of force and fraudĀ  — are so important as a coordinating mechanism for knowledge. As philosopher Ayn Rand has observed a free-market is a corollary of a free-mind.

Anyways How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom is a must-read.

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