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In Defense of Individualism

February 18, 2014

It’s been a while, hasn’t it.

In the realms of academia, and especially Christian academia, where I make my humble abode, it has become fashionable to rail against “individualism.” These sort of academic bogeys come and go–for a while it was fashionable to be against “the enlightenment.” It’s tempting to think of these things as merely fads, the academic equivalent of parachute pants or the Bay City Rollers. But academia has a huge influence upon the rest of “the culture,” and it is important to know what is going on.

The current challenge to “individualism” often comes dressed in a Christian cloak; sometimes it’s a front for liberation theology, sometimes it isn’t. The individualism decried is usually “American” individualism (as opposed to, I suppose, Norwegian individualism or Azerbaijanian individualism, which are completely innocuous.) Sometimes the thing decried is “rugged” individualism. And usually this is connected to an opposition to philosophical conservatism and (especially) to capitalism. The range of attitudes towards individualism is varied, but the general consensus is that individualism is 1) a Bad Thing, and 2) characteristic of the “right-wing” position and 3) (and this point is more often implied than stated) thus makes the “right-wing” position a Bad Thing as well. In this view, Conservatism is dominated by a selfish, dog-eat-dog ethic that privatizes everything (especially faith) and encourages fragmentation and unhealthy competition. On the other hand, Leftism is presented as being concerned with “community” and care for others or the Other.

Nevertheless, as a conservative I find this view to be a poor caricature of the conservative project. For starters, the picture of “rugged individualism” that many people say or imply is a feature of conservatism is completely off-base. I can think of only three vaguely conservative figures who would hold to anything like “rugged individualism”: Louis L’amour, Ayn Rand, and P.J. O’Rourke. L’amour’s novels are basically advertisements about how awesome Louis L’amour is, and there is a sense in which his heroes are “rugged individualists” who model traits such as self-reliance and independence. L’amour’s idea of the hero, however, is not the Nietzchean superman who towers above everyone, but the ordinary person who uses his self-reliance and independence to protect the weaker people within the community. In Sackett (the only L’amour novel I’ve read all the way through), the title character is struck by a passage in Montesquieu about how the strong members of a community have a responsibility to protect the weaker members of the community against bad guys. This is hardly “rugged individualism.” Ayn Rand’s idea of individualism is darker and more selfish, but we have to remember that it is a knee-jerk reaction to the Communist environment that Rand grew up in and escaped. Additionally, Ayn Rand’s ideas are rejected by a large number of conservatives–John Robbins (who was about as far from Leftism as you could get) spent a good deal of his writing refuting Rand’s ideas. Benjamin Wiker, in his book 10 Books Every Conservative Should Read, labels Ayn Rand as an “impostor.” Whittaker Chambers, one of the founders of the conservative movement in the ’40s and ’50s, was opposed to Rand’s ideas. And in his newest book, P. J. O’Rourke calls her a “loony old b***.” And though the libertarian O’Rourke often takes an exaggerated pose of individualism and selfishness, he does it as a joke. I sometimes feel like there are folks on the Left whose concept of conservatism is taken from reading O’Rourke’s punchlines as if they were serious statements of belief.

A Leftist might counter with the example of, say, their redneck uncle who is always watching Fox News and talking about how people should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” But it’s clearly not fair to pit the best of one side against the worst of another side; the fact that Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn is a more intellectually scintillating writer than Al Franken does not prove that liberals are idiots. Another tack might be to say that opposition to Affirmative Action or welfare programs are a sign of conservative individualism. Perhaps in some cases, like the aforementioned redneck uncle, they are. But the conservative “opposition” to these programs is by no means monolithic (I for one, am not opposed in principle to either one), nor is it always based on the idea that a person should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

What, then, do philosophical conservatives mean when they talk about “individualism.” The crux of individualism is individual rights. One of the foundational ideas that unites all conservatives is the idea of innate human rights. Some people (I’m lookin’ at you, James K.A. Smith) call these “negative” rights, which makes them sound like something bad. But the essence of these rights is that they are innate, given to you by God or nature. No one can “give” you freedom of speech, or conscience or respect. They can only take it away. Of course, there is debate about how far these rights extend, and conservatism is by no means of one opinion in that regard. But, the point of the matter is that these rights have a common grounding, viz. the fact that all humans come from their mother’s womb and all die.

These individual rights are the basis of all other rights. Women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights, etc., are all grounded in the fact that the people agitating for those rights deserve them because of their status as individuals. In a strongly anti-individualist climate, the rights of some people are going to be privileged over the rights of others. In the Norse world, the rights of the invading Viking pillagers take precedence over those of the screaming villagers. In the strongly Communist country, the rights of the people within the Party take precedence over the rights of the dissidents. In the pre-Civil Rights South, the rights of the whites took precedence over the rights of the “Negroes.” Whenever rights are grounded in membership in a certain group, those who don’t belong in the group (the peasants/women/blacks/gays) are naturally going to be given less dignity than ones within the group (what Leftists might call “demonizing the Other). But when the rights are based on the dignity of the individual, regardless of class, sex, race or sexual orientation, then all persons have a solid basis from which to claim dignity. This doesn’t mean that simply affirming the rights of the individual means that the individual will actually get those rights–it took the US 200 years to get to the point where we were giving blacks and women the rights that they deserved. Nevertheless, the dignity and worth of the individual is the basis of those rights.

“Individualism” is also inherently opposed to tyranny. Just today I read in Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian, “Milton Friedman might be wrong about sweatshops and free-market opportunities, but he was not wrong to state that one man plus a correct opinion outvotes a majority.” I don’t think that “individualism” is the only or greatest defense against tyranny–in fact, I think you need strong communal structures to avoid tyranny. Tyranny, however, generally relies on a collective consciousness. Massive crimes are not rationalized by an appeal to the naked self-interest of one person, but to things like “The Aryan fatherland” or “the purity of our religion” or “a perfect world.” Whenever revolutionaries have had a vision of the “ideal” world, the individuals are usually left out. It’s hard to imagine a tyranny based on individual rights–though it’s possible to imagine one that uses the language of individual rights as a smokescreen.

And let us not forget that it is individuals who strike the greatest blows against tyranny. Leftists often like to point out things like “systemic evil,” and use this idea to discredit individualism. But “systemic evil” is nothing more than a way of describing the famous statement that Edmund Burke never said: “evil will only triumph when good men do nothing.” The very language of “systemic evil” suggests that there is some sort of “system” that exists autonomously of actual people, and tends to shift the blame from the actual people involved to this ethereal “system.” In reality, “systemic evils” are often struck down by individuals. Solzhenitsyn struck a powerful blow against the Soviet Union almost single-handedly. Although the Civil Rights Movement was not exclusively the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is doubtful that it would have achieved the gains it did had not Dr. King been a visible, individual figure at its forefront. The two most influential men in the ancient world, Socrates and Jesus Christ, were both executed because they refused to disavow their individual beliefs in the face of collective opposition.

So is individualism a good thing? It depends on what the word means–it can certainly be used as a disguise for selfishness and apathy. But I still contend that the kind of individualism that I have outlined in this essay is the basis or one of the bases, of a good and just society.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2014 10:35 pm

    Some interesting reflections, Nick. Not sure what I think yet, but your push-back against anti-individualism isn’t something I encounter very much. I still count myself proudly among the railers against both the Enlightenment and American individualism, but you make some good points.

    • February 19, 2014 10:16 pm

      Thanks, Adam. I wouldn’t call myself an unqualified individualist, but I think there is good in the term that has been obscured. I like the Enlightenment as well. Perhaps I’m just cranky.

  2. February 19, 2014 1:30 am

    Excellent. While reading this I realized that the “individualism” that I talk about is an ill-defined and unhelpful term. It may or might not communicate what I want it to communicate.

    • February 19, 2014 10:18 pm

      Thank’s Shelby. You make a very important point–individualism can mean whatever you want it to mean. One person sees it as the heroic affirmation of the worth of every human being; another sees it as an excuse people use for being unconcerned about anyone but themselves.
      I was going to include another point in the essay about the importance of “community” to conservative thought and how that differs from the way it is interpreted in Leftism, but it would have been too much of a rabbit trail. It may surface as a separate blog entry soon.

      • February 22, 2014 8:59 pm

        What some have called the Humpty Dumpy Theory of Language – “words don’t mean what they mean, they mean what I say they mean.”

        The same intellectualism that lets us define and talk about individualism has also ambiguated what the word means in the first place. We all might be right, but we’re talking about different things.

        I think that’d be a good follow up post. Only in the Trinitarian mindset can the importance of the individual and the importance of community complement each other.

  3. June 19, 2014 6:14 pm

    This was great. It’s impossible to have a debate unless the words are defined, and people throw around different meanings of ‘community’ ‘tradition’ and ‘individualism.’ I may consider myself an advocate of community in our fragmented society, but Kierkegaard also taught me the value of the individual voice, the knight of faith. We are alone and not alone at the same time, and it is important to keep both those thoughts in mind so as not to make an idol of either one.

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