All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 1993

The Fear of Individualism

Attacks against individualism grossly distort what it really is.

Tibor Machan is a philosophy professor. He was smuggled out of Communist Hungary in 1953 and has lived in the United States since 1956.

One of America’s most important girls to the world was the political philosophy of individualism. The central tenet of this idea is that every human being is important, especially from the point of view of law and politics, as a sovereign individual, not living by the permission of the government or some master or lord. That is the basic idea underpinning not only the democratic process, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the various prohibitions addressed to the government concerning how to treat the citizenry, but the free market economic system as well.

Individualism and Capitalism

The free market system or capitalism is founded on the doctrine that each person has a basic right to private property in his or her labor and what he or she creates and earns freely and honestly. The economic idea of freedom of trade—in labor, skill, goods, services, etc.—rests squarely on individualism. No one is anyone else’s master or servant. No involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime is permitted. Thus everyone has the basic right to engage in free trade—as in any other kind of peaceful action, even when his or her particular decision may not be the wisest or even morally exemplary.

In an individualist society the law upholds the idea that everyone is free to choose to associate with others on his or her own terms—whether for economic, artistic, religious, or romantic purposes. Not that all the choices people make will be good. Not that individuals are infallible. Not that they cannot abuse their freedoms. All of that is granted. But none of that justifies making others their masters, however smart those others may be. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.”

But today the political philosophy under the most severe attack in many intellectual circles is individualism. From leftover Marxists to newly emergent communitarians, and all the way to democratic pragmatists in the fields of political economy, sociology, and philosophy—everyone is badmouthing individualism. It picked up several years ago with the publication of Robert N. Bellah’s book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, and continues with innumerable related efforts, including the launching of the journal The Responsive Community and the publication of a new book by Bellah, The Good Society, as well as Amitai Etzioni’s just-published The Spirit of Community.

These and many other efforts constitute a concerted attack against the individual and his rights. Perhaps predictably, the efforts involve gross distortions of what individualism actually is. It is supposed to foster disloyalty to family, friends, and country. It is supposedly hedonistic and instills antisocial sentiments in people. It is allegedly purely materialistic, lacking any spiritual and cultural values.

But such distortion is accomplished by focusing selectively on a very limited area of individualist philosophy, one employed mostly in technical economic analysis and serving merely as a model by which to understand strictly commercial events in free market economies. An exclusively economic conception of the human individual is admittedly barren—it treats everyone as nothing other than a bundle of desires. But this is not very different from the way every science employs models, taking a very simple idea to make sense of a limited area of the world.

Individualism, True versus False

The anti-individualists do not look at individualism as it is developed by social thinkers such as Frank Chodorov, F. A. Hayek, or Ayn Rand, let alone by some of their contemporary students who are developing these ideas and showing how vibrant a political system and culture can be when human beings are understood as individuals. The sheer creative power of human beings should make clear that their individuality is undeniable, crucial to every facet of human living, good or bad. Yet, this essential individuality of every person by no means takes away the vital role various social affiliations play for them; human individuals are social beings.

The kind of community worthy of human life is intimately tied to individualism; such a community, even if the most suitable setting for human living, must be chosen by the individuals who occupy it. If this is subverted by forcing individuals into communities, those involuntary communities will not be genuine communities at all. Individual choice and responsibility are essential to human flourishing.

Indeed, in America, where individualism has flourished more than elsewhere, there are millions of different communities to which individuals belong, often simultaneously, and this is possible because individuals have their right to choose reasonably well protected. Not only do all individuals join a wide array of communities-family, church, profession, clubs, civic associations, and political parties—but there are vastly different approaches to living that also draw around them large segments of the population who join freely, without any coercion and regimentation. But instead of appreciating the robust nature of individualism, including its support for the healthiest form of communitarianism, its opponents are trying to discredit it in any way they can. Why?

Well, some of their motives may be decent enough—some may indeed fear the impact of narrow economic individualism and thus carp against all individualism. But sometimes their motivations cannot be understood as anything else but a hunger for power over other people’s lives. Otherwise, why would the critics ignore perfectly sensible versions of individualism and insist on the caricatures? Over and over again they invoke the caricature even when other, well developed versions are available.

Something like this seems to be the best explanation for wishing to destroy the most significant American discovery, namely, the vital contribution of individuality to human culture. Why would such attacks be launched but to reintroduce subjugation, involuntary servitude, and the demeaning of individuals as individuals in favor of some elite?

No doubt those clamoring for power rationalize their actions with the thought of certain worthy goals: They want a cooperative, harmonious, mutually enhancing community. They often believe that individuals as individuals are dangerous but as members of a community they are wonderful. As the Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya observes in a recent issue of The New Republic:

Taken individually, in short, everyone is not good. Perhaps this is true, but then how did all these scoundrels manage to constitute a good people? The answer is that “the people” is not “constituted of.” According to [collectivists] “the people” is a living organism, not a “mere mechanical conglomeration of disparate individuals.” This, of course, is the old, inevitable trick of totalitarian thinking: “the people” is posited as unified and whole in its multiplicity. It is a sphere, a swarm, an anthill, a beehive, a body. And a body should strive for perfection; everything in it should be smooth, sleek, and harmonious. Every organ should have its place and its function: the heart and brain are more important than the nails and the hair, and so on. If your eye tempts you, then tear it out and throw it away; cut off sickly members, curb those limbs that will not obey, and fortify your spirit with abstinence and prayer.

That is why they should be in power: They are the head of the organism, of the community; they know what is good; and they ought to be making the decisions as to who remains part of it and who must be cut off.

Members of society do have different roles; the economists speak convincingly of the benefits of the division of labor. The errors of the collectivists are (1) their presumption that they know better than the individuals involved which members of society are less important, and (2) they have the right to eliminate those members. But individuals are ends in themselves, not animals to be sacrificed on the altar of the collectivist state.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.