Reclaiming Individualism: Perspectives on public policy, by Paul Spicker

Policy Press, 2013, vii + 208 pp, 1 4473 0908 6, hbk, £70

Moral individualism depends on the premise, not just that each person is an individual, but also that each individual is of value. One of the key roles of individualism has been to assert that every person matters. Doctrines that dismiss, disregard or diminish the individual – caste, racism or fascism – are mistaken, oppressive and morally wrong. (p.23)

But there are other kinds of individualism, too: ‘Methodological individualism’ characterises the individual as a ‘rational, self-interested utility maximiser’ (p.57), and it is from this type of individualism that stem the ideas that the exercise of choice leads to well-being, that markets are uniquely able to satisfy people’s needs, and that any collective idea of welfare compromises individual welfare (p.2): but as Spicker points out, there are many things that markets cannot do, and one of those things is the protection of individuals’ rights (p.99). Where a market does not and cannot exist (for instance, in relation the care of vulnerable groups in society), quasi-markets are now attempted: but quasi-markets are not genuine markets and they don’t work like markets. ‘Individual responses in social policy are not always preferable to generalised responses’ (p.99).

As Spicker proves with this book, to tackle a particular theme in political economy, like the idea of ‘the individual’ and the associated ‘individualisms’, can be a very useful way to construct an education in economics, in social policy, and in the conceptual and practical fields that the two disciplines share. So in this volume we find accessible discussions of public choice theory (and of associated game theory), of indifference curves, of the price mechanism, and of Pareto optimality; and of personalised services, voluntary collective action, and inequality. It is in the discussion of inequality that we find a good example of the way in which individual welfare cannot be separated from collective welfare, and of the way in which social policy and economic theory can be usefully connected with each other. It is no surprise that Spicker references Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level’s discussion of the social problems that stem from greater inequality, and that he adds that ‘if people think that inequality or unfairness is unacceptable, that implies that they will be on a lower indifference curve [level of utility] than they would be if there was a fair allocation’ (p.95). Similar connections can be found amongst discussions of such particular policy areas as the personalisation of social care, in which collective individualised quasi-market transactions continue to require public sector involvement.

The book is a most thorough exploration of a wide variety of issues related to ‘the individual’ as an idea in social policy discussion. What it lacks is the kind of practical grounding that an extended case study would have offered. There are numerous short case studies (for instance, a discussion of mutual housing finance illustrating a connection between collective action and individual welfare: p.156). Even more helpful would have been a case study pursued across all of the chapters, showing how the various theoretical aspects of individualism impact differently and together on a single policy area. Spicker has expertise in the benefits field, and a discussion of how the different individualisms, the different aspects of economic theory, and the different ideological positions discussed might relate to the provision of benefits would have been educational. The book already contains a discussion of inequality, and also asks about the redistribution of income (on p.125: indexed under ‘redistribution’ but not under ‘income’), but if a second edition is called for then a case study could evaluate contributory, universal and means-tested benefits in relation to the ways in which they relate to each theoretical discussion. A Citizen’s Income might be precisely the kind of collective action that could serve individual welfare by reducing inequality and by providing greater choice in terms of income generation, employment pattern, voluntary activity, and relationship building. As Spicker puts it, ‘paternalism can increase freedom, and the autonomy of the person who benefits from it’ (p.173). We might prefer the term ‘social provision’ to ‘paternalism’, but on the basis on the evidence we find in the book we can agree with the sentiment. It would be particularly true of a Citizen’s Income that social provision would increase freedom, and the autonomy of the person who received it.