Excessive Individualism



Monthly articles (English and French) on the theme "Querying economic orthodoxy"

No. 30 - June 2008

Individualism is a recently-coined expression to which a new idea has given birth. Our fathers knew only egoism..
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835), vol. I, part ii, chap. 2

It has been suggested...that the impossibly violent loves of the romantics were less erotic in origin than manifestations of rebellion against the norms of society.
George Lascelles, Earl of Harewood, Kobbé's Complete Opera Book (The Bodley Head, London, 1987), page 393; he is writing about the romantic operas of Bellini (1801 - 1835).

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, essay Self-Reliance (1841), para. 6

Wherever a man goes, men will pursue him and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, contrain him to belong to their desperate oddfellow society. (1)
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), chap. viii

Nothing, not God ,is greater to one than one's self is.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855), canto 48

Nor does the Anarchistic scheme furnish any code of morals to be imposed upon the individual. Mind your own business is its only moral law...In accordance with this view the Anarchists look upon attempts to suppress vice as in themselves crimes.
Benjamin Tucker (2), essay State Socialism and Anarchism (1886)

The diminution of respect, is it not the phenomenon par excellence of contemporary society?....The extinction of respect naturally implies the suppression of the State.
Elisée Reclus (3), L'Anarchie (lecture given in Bruxelles, 1894)

Those who fundamentally despise the state tend to neglect the art of good government. That is how the Republican party has fallen into the appalling decadence of the Bush era.

The roots of individualism

Individualism was not born in May 1968. It goes back a great deal further. We can follow its trace to the Protestant Reformation which, in the 16th century, exalted the autonomy of the individual Christian as against the authority and tradition of the Church. The 18th century, the age of the Enlightenment, was more concerned with the individual's moral and political rights, with the equality of individuals before the law. Later, in the 19th century, individualism drifted towards a kind of anarchism, a rejection of social norms and customs.

Expressions of this near-anarchism, such as those quoted above, could be startlingly virulent. Compared with the splenetic outbursts of Emerson or Thoreau against society, Lady Thatcher's strictures (4) seem mild. Towards the end of the 19th century, individualism developed, with certain thinkers, into outright anarchism.

In America, individualism is fundamental, forming part of the national tradition. It dates back to the age of the pioneers on the Western frontiers, often little interested in building communities, more concerned to take advantage of the wide open spaces to set themselves up as isolated, independant colonists - as miners or hunters, farmers or cattle-breeders.

It is true that, in the historical America of the post-colonial years, the dominant public philosophy was based largely on the idea that 'the republic' should provide basic guidelines for the conduct of economic affairs, family life and personal morality. However, like many aspects of the early American scene, this idea has been generally forgotten, eclipsed by the dominant libertarian individualism of our times. In the American collective memory, the West has won out over the East, the Lone Ranger over the good citizen of the New England towns.

Individualist dangers

The individualist tendency was observed and commented upon by Tocqueville in the early 19th century. He described it (5) as a thoughtful and peaceable feeling which inclines each citizen to draw aside, with his family and friends, from the mass of his fellow-citizens...in such a way that...he willingly abandons the wider society to its own devices. Tocqueville's critique of individualism is severe: at first it pollutes only the source of the public virtues; but, in the long term, it attacks and destroys all the others and finally shrivels into egoism. For Tocqueville, individualism was an evil leading to the degradation of the social and political order. He feared that the excessive pursuit of personal independence would undermine democratic participation in the governance of society.

The individualist is more concerned with protecting his own independence from the state than in working to build a virtuous and effective state. Those who fundamentally despise the state tend to neglect the art of good government. That is how the Republican party has fallen into the appalling decadence of the Bush era.

In economics, the idea of the free, self-reliant individual translates into the cult of the independent entrepreneur, the self-made man, contemptuous of regulations, of taxes, of trade or professional associations, of collective agreements with labour.

Contempt for solidarity

Individualist morality insists that each person must live by his own efforts and avoid all dependence upon others. It takes a dim view of the notions of solidarity and interdependence. If a rich and successful individualist feel disposed to share some of his affluence with the poor, so be it. But there is no question of recognising the Jewish and Christian doctrine of a moral or even legal obligation to share. Do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations thundered Emerson in the essay quoted above, adding that, when he was occasionally weak enough to toss the odd dime to a beggar, he felt ashamed of doing so.

Thus, individualism rejects in principle tax-based redistribution and the welfare state In practice, this attitude leads to huge inequalities. It is futile to say that, in theory, we are all born equal. Quite apart from any inherited differences in social and financial status, the innate differences between personalities are quite sufficient to produce very large differences in personal situations. There are those who are born rich and die poor, and vice versa. There are savers and spendthrifts, money-makers and chronic losers, the robust and the sickly, the hardworking and the lazy, the ambitious and the modest, the greedy and the unwordly.

Individualist doctrine insists that we must accept the consequences of all these differences, which can mean glaring inequalities and a fractured society, the richest living in fortresses of security, fearful of attacks by the penniless. Even Hayek, that extreme libertarian, admitted unwillingly (6) the need for some provision for those threatened by the extremes of indigence or starvation, be it only in the interest of those who require pretection against acts of desperation on the part of the needy.

The consequence of such attitudes is the reappearance of impoverished, disadvantaged, hopeless underclasses. In the past, these underclasses were often subdued and quiet; today, people are not so easily contented. Those who feel underprivileged are inclined to revolt, as we see in the unhappy suburbs of Paris. Exorbitant inequalities can lead to the breakdown of social order. A society with a substantial propertyless underclass cannot reasonably be expected to be stable when the resentments of those with nothing are open to exploitation by radical movements (7). But extreme individualists detest stability. Hear Emerson again (8): People wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.

Excessive competition

The individualist principle is hostile to any limitation of competition between individuals or, by extension, between their businesses. To restrain competition would interfere with the commercial freedom of individual entrepreneurs. So individualist societies try, fortunately without complete success, to foster unlimited competition; not just everyone for himself, but everyone against everyone.

In this framework, one must not restrain the powerful and greedy entrepreneur, such as Sam Walton or Rupert Murdoch, whose competition crushes his competitors. One must not pacify price wars which can threaten the viability of all those engaged in them, as one sees today in American civil aviation. One must not discourage the investment bankers' frantic competition for the services of ace traders, which drives the remuneration of those traders to grotesque levels.

Unconcern with the common good

Individualism disapproves of public expenditure, of the diversion of personal riches towards the promotion of the common good. The promoters of this philosophy, armed with the theories of Mises and Hayek, argue that no individual, no organisation, can possibly know what is best for the community. Hayek (9) denounces the persistence of instinctual feelings of altruism and solidarity, those absurd and pathetic relics of the pre-libertarian past.

Who alone, then, possesses the knowledge of what is best for society? Not you, not I, hardly the Church, not the town hall, certainly not the government. It is the aggregate of us all acting independently, heedless of the consequences for others of our actions, acting each for his or her own advantage. In other words, it is His Majesty King Market in all his glory.

Individualism, best taken in moderation

We all want to be ourselves, to develop and express our individuality. But we do not live alone. We belong, whatever ultraliberal theorists may say, to one or another society; and this belonging is very important for most of us. Unlimited individual liberty is neither practical or desirable. So let us not overindulge in the strong liquor of individualism, too much of which is maddening.

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1 The word oddfellow comes from the name of a kind of mutual benevolent association (friendly society) which originated in England in the 18th century and later spread to America and elsewhere. Oddfellows met in lodges somewhat like those of Freemasons. Their societies were so named because they contained men of various trades, unlike guilds and early trade unions, which were generally restricted each to one trade. 'Orders of Oddfellows' still exist in many countries.

2 Benjamin Tucker (1854 - 1939), a leading American proponent of individualist anarchism.

3 Elisée Reclus (1830 - 1905), a leading figure in the 19th century French anarchist movement.

4 For example, Margaret Thatcher stated, in a press interview in 1987, that there is no such thing as society; there are individuals and families.

5 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835), vol. II, part ii, chap. 2

6 Friedrich von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1960), page 285.

7 John Gray, Beyond the New Right (Routledge, London, 1993) chap. 1. Gray, an English economist and philosopher, is a professor at the London School of Economics.

8 Ralph Waldo Emerson, essay Circles (1841)

9 Friedrich von Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (Routledge, London, 1988), chap. iv