All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1994

Is Individualism Dead?

Modern Society Does Not Require State Regimentation

Mr. Hultberg is a freelance writer in San Antonio, Texas.

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
For boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Study any account of the growth of America and one fact always jumps out at you—the heroic self-determination of the men and women who shaped the events of our history. Throughout those sprawling colonial years, to the trying times of the Revolution, and beyond to the boom towns of the West, the railroad age, Edison, Henry Ford, and the roaring twenties; there is something observable in the people of these eras–an unrelenting sense of self-reliance and willingness to take risks.

It is not a history of government social agendas, with their inevitable concomitants of futility and despair. It is a history of adventurous, self-assured individuals in pursuit of great accomplishments, of personal daring and discovery. The dominant figures that built this country were not leveling bureaucrats, but dynamic entrepreneurs, pioneers, scientists, inventors, immigrants–bold individuals with “genius, power, and magic” in them, willing to rise or fall on their own merits and the strength of their faith in a just Providence.

They fought a war with a ragged little army against a mighty empire, and won. They wrote a Constitution for all the ages, and crossed a vast and death-dealing frontier with nothing but covered wagons and their own personal stamina. New inventions, miracles of production, and an astonishing wealth sprang from their unbounded ambition. They turned useless prairies into golden wheatfields, wagons into powerful locomotives, and a savage wilderness into a network of commerce and trade.

To such restless enterprising people, there was little on earth that was impossible. All they wanted was to be free, to keep what they produced, and to seek their destiny beyond the next horizon. They would work out their own security. “Just let us be free,” they insisted.

It was thus that a whole new philosophy came to be, through the first stirrings of these brave men and women. It was the philosophy of individualism, and it stood in direct contrast to the accepted beliefs of Europe, which taught men to seek security and subordinate themselves to the dictates of the monarch, or the feudal lords, or whoever had the power of the state and church behind them. This new American philosophy declared that men were their own rulers, that they were responsible for their own lives and possessed the power within them to overcome any obstacle. It was a philosophy that exploded across a whole continent. It transformed the world and turned life into an active force for good.

For a century and a quarter, Americans adhered to individualism, and as a result, their prosperity grew to unparalleled heights.

Abandoning Principles

Beginning around the turn of the century, though, a great many Americans began to abandon the individualistic principles that had served them so well. By the start of the 1930s, the primitive concept of statism, dominant throughout the monarchist age in Europe, began to re-emerge under the guise of “social progressivism.” As a result, bureaucracy grew, life became less meaningful, peace became the exception, and that vital spirit of individualism faded in face of the burgeoning welfare state.

“The individual means less and less, mass and collectivity more and more and so the net of servitude which hems in personal development becomes ever denser, more closely meshed, and inescapable,” wrote Wilhelm Ropke some 40 years ago in his great classic, A Humane Economy.[1] He saw all too clearly the horrible changes that were sweeping over the Western world as a result of collectivism and bureaucratism.

The fundamental question we face now is: Can the philosophy of individualism survive, or is it to wither away under the ever swelling shadow of a monster government and the womb-to-tomb security its social engineers are forcing upon us? Must we passively accept being wards of the state, or do we still possess enough of the spirit that founded America to recapture our basic rights? Do we still value freedom, or is it really state regimentation that we seek down deep in some craven corner of our souls?

If a free America is to be preserved then the first and greatest enemy of freedom must be contested. And that is the notion that freedom is no longer possible in a modern world, that individualism as a philosophy of life is a relic of the past. We hear it everywhere. In fact, we’re bombarded by such pronouncements from the time we first go to school. “Individualism was a good thing in its day,” we’re told, “but it’s no longer workable.” A growing flood of socioconomic studies pours forth from the nation’s universities proclaiming to Americans that, while a free market is certainly productive, the underlying fundamentals of laissez-faire capitalism were nefariously unsound. Thus we must move toward a more “public spirited,” a more “nationally planned” social structure.

Such appeals speak soothingly to us, with benign and futuristic phrases: “new social vistas,” “the upcoming challenges of America’s third century, . . . . the necessity to build a modern era of co-operation between the greatness of government and the productivity of the business world.” It all sounds very progressive, very necessary. The world is changing, and therefore America must change also. A laissez-faire economy is just not applicable to modern times. “We cannot afford the anarchy of the capitalist system,” explain the experts. “Individualism may have worked fine in a frontier society, but not in a modern technological society.” And we obediently clasp such fateful declarations to our bosom without so much as an afterthought.

Should it not be obvious by now, though, in light of the world’s present catastrophic economic convulsions, that it is actually the other way around—that it is actually socialism and welfarism that cannot work in a modern technological society? Witness the all-encompassing collapse of socialist principles in the USSR and Eastern Europe as viable means of societal organization. Witness the “democratic socialism” that has kept India starving for decades, with its people subjected to endless turmoil, demoralizing uncertainty and ruthless power grabs. Witness the pathetic stagnancy of Sweden this past century, into a somnolent nation of collectivist poltroons, now staggering under the debilitating taxation and bureaucratic servitude that their “state welfarism” has generated.

During the past 80 years, every nation in the civilized world that has adopted either socialism or welfarism as its form of political-economic organization has incurred deterioration and chaos in every conceivable area of life. Inflation has plagued their economies, distorting their marketplaces and eroding the value of their currencies. A silent and sickly moroseness has settled over the lives of their young (for who can find pleasure in living when the state determines the limits of one’s dreams?) Real prosperity has diminished. True freedom is gone. Joy and exuberance and the zest that life should hold for all is non-existent.

In the more primitive parts of the Third World, the record is even worse. Barbarism and tyranny, of a sort that Americans can scarcely fathom, are commonplace. Poverty lingers. Illiteracy, disease, inhumanity, and regimentation overwhelm everyone visiting such “collectivist paradises.”

Why has this happened? As predicted long ago by Ludwig von Mises, socialist systems cannot calculate prices because they obliterate the entrepreneur, and thus they have no means to rationally determine supply and demand. Thus they have no power to produce either a quantity or quality of productive goods. Because they are devoid of the incentives that result from private property, socialist countries can bring forth only shabbiness and squalor, for their subjects will produce only enough to keep themselves out of trouble. So the great collectivist “ideal” of the political left, that was to transform the world into a technological Eden where all men can live in harmony without worrying about such grubby pursuits as earning a living, has not materialized. In fact precisely the opposite has come about.

With the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the fading of Communist Party control over Eastern Europe, the ideology of socialism was dealt, in many Western eyes, a devastating death blow. But a closer look reveals that socialism is merely reforming its basic goals into a more salable ideological framework.

Incredibly the purveyors of forced collectivity in Europe and America still cling to their dream of merging Eastern socialism and Western capitalism into an authoritarian World Welfare State, where equality of conditions for everyone is implemented. Still they proclaim that mankind must continue on to build the collectivist ideal; it just has to be along more “democratic lines.” Still they proclaim that free markets and coercive bureaucracies must merge, that with just a little more time, a little more taxation, a little more regulation, humanity will one day realize the collectivist paradise. What is needed is not the extreme version of Marxism, but a more moderate “middle way” in the manner of Sweden. But to consider individualist capitalism is impossible. People must relinquish the direction of their lives to oligarchic bureaucrats and professorial elites, who are so much more “qualified” to determine how we are to live. When all this has come to pass, mankind will surely have found the egalitarian kingdom.

Even in face of collectivism’s squalor and despair, most pundits of the West still believe this failed ideology retains some semblance of idealism, needing only a few “theoretical adjustments.”

But collectivism’s ineptitude does not lie in the depravity of its rulers, or the absence of purchasing power, or lack of time to prove itself. It lies in the overwhelming irrationality of its basic conception of life. Men are not meant to live in subservience to the commands of the state. They are meant to live as the Founding Fathers of America decreed: as free and responsible beings, with obedience to neither King nor mass opinion, but to “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

For those who wish to prosper and find their way toward a meaningful existence, that gives back a richness of reward for one’s efforts, there is only one vehicle with which to bring about such values: the philosophy of individualism and its marketplace of liberty. The whole history of the past 800 years in the West stands as testament to such a truth.

The Birth of Liberty

The idea of individual liberty was philosophically born with the signing of the Magna Charta in 1215, and then painstakingly built upon and honed and strengthened over the centuries by such great men as Erasmus, John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Frederic Bastiat. It was never thoroughly grasped, and never perfectly practiced, and many times lost altogether, but it lifted men from the Dark Ages to medieval commerce, and out of the era of monarchies to the New World. There it brought into being a radical new social structure of personal independence for all people, forming in 1776 the foundation for a system of living that was to become the envy of the entire globe, luring wave after wave of immigrants to our shores.

Such a system produced unprecedented freedom and human dignity. But intimidated by the false theories of Karl Marx and his intellectual progeny, such a system has been for many decades now under severe attack in our colleges and our legislatures.

What has been taking place in America throughout the past eighty years, the bureaucratization of the marketplace and the centralization of power in Washington—is not at all the glorious march toward “justice and equality” that has been portrayed. It’s a virulent and purposeful assault upon the most cherished philosophical premises of our lives. Every value, so dear to the preservation of our freedom, is being steadily eroded by the technocratic sweep of twentieth-century statism and its ideological frenzies of regimenting all men into a massive welfare-state utopia.

“In all fields,” writes Wilhelm Ropke, “mass and concentration are the mark of modern society; they smother the area of individual responsibility, life, and thought. . . . The small circles—from the family on up with their human warmth and natural solidarity, are giving way before . . . the amorphous conglomeration of people in huge cities and industrial centers, before rootlessness and mass organizations, before the anonymous bureaucracy of giant concerns and eventually, of government itself, which holds this crumbling society together through the coercive machinery of the welfare state, the police, and the tax screw. This is what was ailing modern society even before the Second World War, and since then the illness has become more acute and quite unmistakable. It is a desperate disease calling for the desperate cure of decentralization . . . . People need to be taken out of the mass and given roots again.”[2]

If such compulsive centralization of our society is to be checked and America’s unique brand of freedom to be saved, then it will take a genuine restoration of the philosophy that our forefathers so boldly forged with blood and sinew throughout the early years of this nation. If the political brilliance that the Founding Fathers gave to us is not truly revived in America, then freedom as we know it will not remain; and in its place will come the New Orwellians of Technocracy, brandishing convoluted laws and regulations.

The educationists and editorialists who dominate today’s university and media scene, and so glibly report in their manifold outpourings that we must “re-evaluate and modify the antiquated principles of individualism,” that we must strive to make our government “more creative in the solving of modern-day problems,” are so consumed with myopic scientism and programmatic avidity, that they can no longer grasp the principles necessary for the living of life in heroic form.

To “re-evaluate individualism” is to question the moral legitimacy of freedom itself, and the natural right of all men to personally direct the furtherance of their own lives. To say we must “legislatively modify individualism,” is to say we must “forcefully modify humans,” which is to make men into mechanized cogs.

What must be done in America today is to restore individualism, not re-evaluate it or modify it. Individualism cannot be “modernized.” It cannot be made “relative to our time.” It transcends time. It is a set of principles that are unalterable. It is the core, the genesis, the foundation of all freedom, all prosperity, all dignity, all life. Without it as our guide, our future will be bleak and despotic for sure. []


  1.   Wilhelm Ropke, A Humane Economy (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1960), p. 17.
  2.   lbid., p. 7. Emphasis added.