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Time to Revive Individualism?

Stephen Davies

One problem facing people who broadly favor smaller, limited government; private property; and free exchange is what to call themselves. Historically the word “liberal” was the answer and still is in many parts of continental Europe. However, in the Anglophone world, particularly the United States, the word has now come to refer to those who favor an interventionist role for government and a broadly collectivist approach to politics and culture—an almost complete reversal of meaning.

There have been efforts to reclaim the term by those who sometimes describe themselves as “old-fashioned liberals,” but these have not succeeded. Faced with this situation, supporters of the original liberal position have resorted to a number of linguistic expedients. For a while many adopted the label “conservative,” which had been previously attached to some of their most steadfast opponents. This nomenclature, while widely used in the United States, has never caught on elsewhere and has not fully taken hold even there. This was partly because many old-style liberals refused to use it and also because the right to the label was vigorously contested by what we may call old-style or “traditionalist” conservatives, who claimed a right of first usage.

More recently most advocates of strictly limited government have settled on the term “libertarian,” while others prefer the more learned-sounding “classical liberal.” (I have used both terms myself.)

However, these alternatives still present problems and are arguably not satisfactory. As F. A. Hayek pointed out, the term “conservative” not only brings allusions to a tradition of thought that while distinguished is not “liberal” in the older sense, it also carries implications of a mistrust of reason and skepticism about change combined with a reverence for the past and an affection for such things as tradition, hierarchy, and authority, none of which are core parts of the historic liberal tradition, with its emphasis on individual liberty, innovation, and personal responsibility.

The expression “classical liberal” is much better but is clumsy and has the clear implication that the ideas are some kind of preserved tradition rather than a developing body of thought. “Libertarian” is the most popular (and is now found on Facebook!) but has disadvantages of its own. As well as being an ugly word, it has the implication for anyone familiar with its history that the person using it as a label is an anarchist. In most cases this is not true and causes confusion.

More seriously, the term “libertarian” draws attention to only one part of a much larger philosophy: opposition to extensive government and political power. This is indeed a central part of the philosophy, but it is not the whole of it and use of the term tends to lead to the other elements being slighted or ignored.

Is this really a problem? If so, is it serious enough to warrant any thought? Clearly this isn’t the most serious difficulty, but history and political experience suggest that it is more serious than one might imagine. All words, and political labels in particular, come with a whole range of historical and cultural associations and secondary meanings that have a significant effect on the way people respond to individuals and ideas associated with them. Some labels can come to have a series of associations so negative that it is impossible to use them to identify your argument if you want to persuade people.

In the United States, for example, any argument for greater decentralization and less centralization is doomed if linked with the expression “states’ rights” because of that term’s association with racial privilege and segregation. Other words carry a whole set of broadly positive associations, and this makes neutrals more favorably disposed toward the arguments identified with them. This was once very much the case with “liberal,” which is why people made enormous and successful efforts to appropriate it.

There is a term available that is seldom used now, but that was once the predominant and accepted label for the set of ideas related to personal freedom and responsibility. This is “individualism”—or rather “Individualism.” Before the mid-nineteenth century the word “individualism” was rarely used and when it was, it was usually as a pejorative, with connotations of selfishness and irresponsibility. However, from about the 1850s onwards a whole series of writers on both sides of the Atlantic (and not just in the English-speaking world) began to use the word and associated ones such as “individuality” in a positive way. From the 1870s onwards it came to be capitalized and used as a political label.

The period between roughly 1880 and 1912 saw an intense debate in Britain and the British Empire, the United States, and France in particular between two fairly well-defined and -organized intellectual camps, the self-defined Individualists and Collectivists. The second group included Fabian socialists and American Progressives (who went on to capture the word “liberal”), but also included conservative imperialists and advocates of policies such as nativism and racism, as well as the wing of the Republican party represented by figures such as Theodore Roosevelt. (Many of the socialist and “left-wing” progressives were also supporters of imperialism, racism, and policies such as eugenics—something now often forgotten.) The Individualists were the advocates of minimal government and opposition to empire and indeed all forms of collectivism, whether racial or national. They were also associated with a number of other movements, above all feminism, with many leading feminists of the time strongly self-identified as Individualists. The heart of the argument was about whether government has a duty to promote a general collective welfare, defined as something above and beyond the pursuit of individual happiness, and whether there is some collective identity that trumps the claims of actual individual men and women.

Term Disappears

Up until the 1930s this division between Individualism and Collectivism was generally understood to be one of the basic distinctions in modern politics. As late as the 1930s the opposition to the New Deal came largely from people who identified themselves as individualists and as belonging to what by then was a well-established intellectual tradition. Then quite suddenly in the 1940s and 1950s the term disappeared from general use as a political label and reverted to a more general, uncapitalized use. Why this happened is a mystery, but it was clearly part of the general reshuffling of “right wing” politics that took place with the advent of the Cold War.

Apart from its historical associations, now largely forgotten but ripe for rediscovery, Individualism has a number of advantages over other terms in the contemporary world. It has broadly positive connotations for many people but also makes divisions between those who respond favorably and others who do not more clear cut and obvious. As such it sends a clear message. It has a wide range of meanings and associations in addition to implying a clear view about government and its role, as it also has implications for one’s attitudes toward culture, philosophy, and social life in general. It does not imply that if you define yourself in this way then you are a supporter of the status quo (you may be, but that isn’t the clearly understood implication of the word).

Above all it relates to what is increasingly the real debate in modern societies. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have increasingly reverted to the debate of the period between 1880 and 1914 between increasingly aggressive collectivists of many kinds on the one side and defenders of individual autonomy and voluntary choice on the other. We may say, and not tongue in cheek, “Individualists of the world unite.” It’s time to dust off that label and revive it.

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