Throughout its brief history, the idea of individualism has animated much good that has come about in society. It has also generated volumes of nasty criticism. Among the critics Marx was perhaps the most fervent. He claimed there is nothing more to the belief in the value of the individual human being than a ploy to get people to produce with all their energy. Once this vigorous production bore fruit, the idea of the value of the individual could be abandoned for the myth it was and the real truth could be told: “The human essence is the true collectivity of man.” Marx thought we are what he called “specie beings,” that is, parts of humanity, with humanity the locus of true value. It is only by service to humanity that our worth is established, he argued.
The tribal mentality—always a major factor in how human beings acted—is still a powerful force today. In America communitarians advocate a tribal humanitarianism rather than socialism which is becoming useless as an inspiring ideal because of its very bad reputation. Individualism continues to be assaulted from both the right and the left. Conservatives see it as too readily opposing tradition and custom, the vote of the historical majority. Modern liberals just find humanity much more lovable than actual individual human beings.
In the process of denouncing individualism, critics have perpetuated all sorts of distortions. Most notable is the one where individualism is represented as claiming that every human being is supposed to be an isolated, totally unique, self-sufficient, or atomistic individual. As if the position held that we each come into the world ready made, unrelated to others, free to abandon our fellows and flourish, nevertheless. Such abstract individualism has been the target of innumerable critics. On this mythical view has been blamed crime, poverty, child molestation, divorce, decadence, hedonism, violence, hate, racism, greed, and what have you. Every scourge of the world is laid at the feet of individualism by these critics who are usually inspired by Marx, even when they only use this portion of his thinking (realizing that the rest has been shown to be a mistake).
Two can play at this game of smearing views by isolated, misconceived example. Indeed, it is arguable that what troubles tribalism is far worse than any of the pitfalls of individualism.
This all was brought home to me when I heard about the vicious killing of Colombian soccer star Andrés Escobar, who had the misfortune of accidentally scoring into his own team’s goal in the World Cup game against the team from the United States. Three thugs gunned him down as he emerged from a club in Bógota, with one gunman shouting “Goal, goal” as the shots were fired, or so it was reported.
If the team is all, if the group is supreme, if the country or race or sex or ethnic collective is placed above everything else, well then, perhaps, when someone bungles big in a crucial game, even if only accidentally, off with his head. He needs to be liquidated, the team purified, not unlike the ethnic purification going on elsewhere on the globe where folks think that the group reigns supreme over the individual.
Who ever heard of individual rights in such a situation? It is nonsense, is it not, just as the greatest collectivist thinkers through the ages have claimed. One of these, Auguste Comte, the father of sociology and the thinker who coined the term “altruism,” made the point this way:
[The] social point of view . . . cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service. . . . This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.
Not that people who elevate the group above the individual all advocate treating individuals with no regard for their well- being, with no attention to their rights. But for them individual rights are subsidiary to the group’s purposes. So if the group is all worked up about winning soccer games, why should they not treat any individual badly who does not follow suit? Why spare that person?
This may not be the fairest point to raise against those who advocate communitarianism, socialism, or other forms of groupism or collectivism. But these thinkers are far from fair when it comes to characterizing individualism and what may be expected from a society where individualist values are well respected. Fair or not, my criticism is not off the mark. The Colombian hoods were not alien to the tribal way of political and social thinking when they eliminated Mr. Escobar. Their social point of view could not tolerate the idea of individual rights either.
—Tibor R. Machan
Dr. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.
The degree of freedom possessed by those having the least power and influence is the true measure of freedom in a nation.
The powerful, having a false sense of freedom through the exercise of power over others, can too easily and inadvertently give up a free nation’s foundation of freedom and thus almost unknowingly give up their own basis of power.
—John V. Westberg