Column on the Importance of Individualism

The Importance of Individualism

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several weeks I have run across numerous efforts by
different political thinkers and activists to discredit individualism.
Some have argued that the idea of the individual is a myth created for us
by our society. Others have pressed the idea that the individual is a
solitary being whose life is awful, lonely and dangerous, so no one ought
to champion individualism, the social philosophy which assigns prime
importance of human individuals. Others have argued that we are all but
cells in the larger body of society or some community, with no
independence or will of our own.

At a conference I attended a while back participants were asked to read a
book in which the reality of the individual was flatly denied by a scholar
who argued for a new version of Karl Marx’s socialism. The individual, the
book’s author maintained, is a mere social construct with no ultimate
reality. (Marx, you might recall, maintained that individualism was an
ideology invented to serve the ruling class!) And at an opening frosh
seminar at my university one professor read a paper in which he defended
the idea that the individual is a figment of our imagination put into our
minds by various social forces that benefit from believing in such a thing
despite its unreality.

Why, you may wonder, is there so much trepidation about individualism,
about the notion that individual human beings do in fact exist and are,
indeed, the most important aspect of human communities? This is, in fact,
the message of America’s most important philosophical document, the
Declaration of Independence. Individual rights which, if they exist,
identify one’s realm of personal authority which may not be undermined,
are the center piece of the American political tradition. So if one
wishes to undermine American ideas and ideals—admittedly not fully
realized in American history—it makes sense to target individualism first
and foremost. Those who reject American exceptionalism, the view that
there is something novel and uniquely valuable about the ideas
underpinning American society, also zero in on individualism. They draw
on all kinds of disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, and even
neurobiology, in their efforts to demean the American individualist
outlook. Often they resort to distorting individualism, caricaturing it,
in order to besmirch it and thereby undermine any admiration people might
have for American institutions and traditions.

One very crucial problem with all this individualism bashing is that it is
all done by, you guessed it, individuals. The scholars, political
theorists, psychologists and sociologists who weigh in against
individualism are, of course, individuals. So what is it they are after
with their relentless criticism?

My hypothesis is that the critics want to rob individuals—you, me and all
the rest—of the authority over their lives and property. By abolishing
the individual person, they are then able to dismiss the wants, desires,
purposes, goals, and values of other individuals. In other words,
individualism-bashing amounts to a quest for power by some individuals
over other individuals. For those who say that it is the community that
matters most—or, as a recent piece of writing put it, who elevate society
over the individual—really have nothing with which to replace the central
role of individuals since communities, societies, countries, and even
families are all composed of individuals.

So the most reasonable interpretation of the anti-individualist position,
in my view, is that some individuals, by pretending to speak for the
group, society, community, or humanity aim to rule the rest of us. No
doubt sometimes this is motivated by a belief that if these individuals
had the power over us, many problems would be solved, much good would be
achieved. No doubt, too, some of the problems of people in various
societies do stem from the misconduct of some individuals that others
could at times remedy.

Yet, this is not going to be achieved by placing certain other individuals
in positions of power. Only when individuals act to invade the lives of
their fellows may power be exercised in order to defend against the
invaders. As to complaints about how various people think or behave apart
from such invasive conduct, they must be dealt with through persuasion and
not the wielding of power.

It is always wise to be on guard when people demean individuals and
individualism. They are most likely up to no good when they do so. Their
claim that we should not take ourselves, individuals all, so seriously but
instead serve the group amounts to a plea for the power of some
individuals over others, nothing more.

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