The topic of individualism is a tricky one. It used to be (and still is) that individualism was sort of a manipulatory smear word against those who were opposed to collectivism and the propaganda put forth by socialists who pushed the idea that those who did not believe in community ownership or “helping out the poor” via government distribution was a rotten individualist– one who cares only for himself and has zero attachment to those outside of his own narcissistic set of interests.
On the roots of the propaganda surrounding individualism, see Frank Chodorov’s What Individualism is Not
In response to the propaganda, there are some libertarians, especially those who lean conservative and who, for instance, have been influenced by the wonderful insights of Robert Nisbet and his Quest for Community, who completely reject the label. Not only do they reject it as an inaccurate description of themselves, but they also deny that the libertarian needs to be an individualist in order to be a libertarian.
To be crystal clear here, as a social conservative myself, I’m a fan of Nisbet, of social interaction, and recognize and uphold the importance of community in the flourishing of civilization.
And yet, I don’t understand why so many of my fellow social conservatives feel the need to adopt the Progressivist/socialist propaganda definition of an individualist. I suppose there is an argument to be made for assuming leftist meaning in order to overcome their arguments. And yet, I conceive of individualism in quite a different way; but I believe my understanding of it has a dominant and convincing history.
For instance, one of my own heroes, who is among the last of the paleo-libertarians to still informally adopt the (socially) conservative label (again, as I do), Tom Woods stated in his recent podcast episode:
“You don’t have to believe in radical individualism to be a libertarian. A radical individualist would be someone who just has no connections with other people. So he doesn’t care about family or community or doesn’t belong to any clubs or just has no feeling of association whatsoever.”
Why is that the definition of an individualist? I’ve only recently, except in socialist propaganda, seen it defined this way.
Individualism, in actuality, is immensely important and ought to be radically and passionately defended. Here are 5 components of individualism:
1: Only the individual thinks
Firstly, individualism is the claim that thinking can only be done by the individual. There is no such thing as “the collective mind,” because groups cannot think. Thinking is an operation of the individual, based on the fact that every human has an independent and unique mind. Therefore, preferences and conclusions are individually pursued. None can think on behalf of another and each man and woman is in control of, responsible for, the thoughts of their minds. This is strictly opposed to the collectivist idea of the “corporate mind.”
2: Only the individual acts
Second, individualism is the claim that the actions of people can only be completed by individuals. Each individual is exclusively capable, restricted only by his or her own nature, of causing himself to act. This is the basis for Austrian School economics. Others cannot act for you and neither can a group act. Any activity said to be done by a group is best understood as a collection of individuals acting. If every man is exclusively in control of his thoughts, then it is only those thoughts that can physically compel the individual to move.
Society does not act. Society is a collection of acting agents and any reference to social action is a metaphor for saying that a collection of individual actors are acting in similar purpose and/or toward similar ends. This is important to remember and maintain, as collectivists of all stripes will so often leverage the alleged acting of society in order to justify various socialist efforts.
3: The individual is a moral agent that is ethically responsible and accountable for his own actions
After aggressing against someone or lying to a neighbor, no individual aggressor or liar can place moral responsibility on another. No man is morally responsible for the sins and deeds of another human being. In the same way that I should not be praised for writing a book that someone else wrote, so I should also not be blamed for murdering someone who was killed by another. Man is responsible for his own actions and his own choices. The implications of this are remarkable.
By way of example, it is by this point that the claims of “social justice” are laid bare. Justice is between individuals, sometimes many, but never between a man and a collective or two sets of “collectives” as in various forms of class warfare. Moreover, this point renders it impossible to blame “society” for any evil. One cannot say, given any number of gun homicides, that society has a “gun problem.” Rather, we say that society includes some individuals who expresses the evil desires by way of murder. To blame evils on an undefinable “society” is to move away from the root of the problem: which is the inherent decision making nature of individuals.
Remember the famous defense of some of the Nazi’s in the Nuremberg trials? They claimed they should receive minimal (or no) sentence because they were just following orders. This was not a morally sound defense. Individuals are responsible for their own actions.
4: The rights of the individual is more important than the will of masses
Justice applies equally between one individual and his neighbor and also between one individual and the rest of society at large. It is unacceptable for the individual to be sacrificed by coercion for the sake of a majority. This prevents against mob rule and the “two wolves and a sheep deciding on the menu” concept. Not only is the majority restricted from harming the individual, the minority, perhaps an aristocratic government, is restricted from breaching the individual rights of anyone who is outside their group. In this way, the law applies equally in a restrictive sense against the perpetrator and in a protective sense on behalf of the individual. Such a doctrine renders democracy, a contemporary idol, as unjust and unethical.
Chodorov once stated:
Metaphysically, individualism holds that the person is unique, not a sample of the mass, owing his peculiar composition and his allegiance to his Creator, not his environment. Because of his origin and existence, he is endowed with inalienable rights, which it is the duty of all others to respect, even as it is his duty to respect theirs; among these rights are life, liberty, and property. Following from this premise, society has no warrant for invading these rights, even under the pretext of improving his circumstances; and government can render him no service other than that of protecting him against his fellow man in the enjoyment of these rights. In the field of economics (with which libertarians are rightly concerned because it is there that government begins its infringement), the government has no competence; and the best it can do is to maintain a condition of order, so that the individual may carry on his business with the assurance that he will keep what he produces. That is all.
Let’s apply this. When the politician states that he will make a decision for the economy based on the preferences of the citizenry, this presents a problem. Not only does the citizenry as a collective have no preferences (because preferences belong only to individuals), but each individual actually has competing preferences. Therefore the politician (and the full force and influence of the State behind him) is stating that he will make a decision for the economy against the will of (some number of) the citizenry.
5: Individuals have the moral duty and impetus to stand up against the crowd; individualism offers justification to dissent in dark times.
Going along with the crowd can be a dangerous thing— it is morally and socially corrupting and, as is so often the case throughout history, the masses have put their efforts behind terrible things. Moreover, sometimes the masses, while not directly putting their active efforts behind a terrible thing, are afraid to speak up and to question prevailing opinion. In dark times such as these, individuals who say “no, I won’t just go along to get along,” are both heroic and vital. Consider the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson. When told he must participate in the ludicrous game of “pretend your own gender pronoun,” Peterson shocked the world by staying put.
Individualists recognize that as thinking, acting, and morally responsible agents, thinking as the rest of the world thinks and doing as the rest of the world does, do not themselves offer justification for thinking and acting that way. The individualist recognizes that there is a higher standard, something that exists outside of the pressures and propaganda of the world around him. The individualist, using reason, chooses to stand put against the trends of the world, if need be; to speak truth to falsehoods, to speak truth to a barbarous populace, to speak truth to Power. The individualist can be resolute in his position.
When we think of the great social heroes of the past, so often we think of men who were scorned at first but, not backing down, they were able to change the world.
The men who thought their own thoughts and acted accordingly. These are the true, noble, and praiseworthy individualists.
As the Christian theologian J. Gresham Machen once noted:
It is true that historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. It provides for the individual a refuge from all the fluctuating currents of human opinion…. It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world; it resolutely refuses to make of the individual a mere means to an end, a mere element in the composition of society. It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God.” ~~J. Gresham Machen