Political individualism — in its most common, though not its only meaning — is a fundamental belief in the protection of the rights of the individual against the incursions of the state and of political power. However, there are many dimensions of individualism and it is possible to be an ‘individualist’ in several different fields. In general usage, an ‘individualist’ denotes a person with a distinctive or unusual personal style, who stands out from the mass. In metaphysics or ontology individualism is a belief that the universe consists fundamentally of individual particulars, separable entities. The opponents of individualism in this sense are holists or monists. The typical holist belief is that the relations (usually systematic relations in some sense) between entities have a more fundamental existence than the entities themselves.
Within the Christian religion individualism is closely associated with Protestantism and the belief in the human capacity for personal contact with God rather than the necessity of instruction through a hierarchy. ‘Economic individualism’ is usually taken to refer to a faith in the capacity of individual action and ambition, working through the market, to create wealth and to bring about progress. Political individualism, as defined above, is a more ambiguous idea.
The central question about individualism per se concerns the connections between these different dimensions. To what extent are they associated and what is the form of the association? Margaret Thatcher is often quoted as saying, ‘There is no such thing as society, but only individuals’, an overtly ontological statement which is ethically and politically suggestive. She actually added the words ‘and families’, which two words can be taken as the thin end of a more collectivist philosophical wedge. The connections between many of these dimensions is not logical entailment: there is no contradiction in being a philosophical monist, yet believing that individual initiative is the chief engine of economic progress or that persons possess rights which should be protected from the power of the state. But a desire for ideological consistency creates an association between the different dimensions of individualism.
There is also an important paradox at the heart of individualism. John Stuart Mill offers one of the most morally appealing images of the individualist society, in which people are unconstrained by conformity and are able to advance civilization by the freest possible development of their own ideas and forms of expression. But how is this individualist society to be achieved? The society which most clearly embodies a belief in economic individualism in its norms and institutions, and the protection of individual rights in its constitution, is the United States. But the United States has often been criticized for its tendency to homogenize people, products, and places, and to require conformity from individuals. In the field of education, it has often been remarked that the withdrawal of authoritarian requirements for conformity in schools is often replaced by a more effective pressure for social conformity which arises from the pupils themselves. Many people believe that the ‘totalitarian’ Soviet Union produced greater individual artists and political thinkers than many more free societies. In extremis, the paradox implies that an element of despotism is required to produce the full flowering of the individual, that authoritarian political structures can serve to protect individuals from social and economic pressures to conform.
Originally written by Lincoln Allison