The Ideology of Individualism and the Myth of Personal Freedom

Individuals are tokens of a type. Each person is a living organism, a mammal, a social primate, an example of homo sapiens, and a member of a race, linguistic group, religion, nation or tribe. While each “type” has specific characteristics to some degree, individuality is relative: variety within uniformity. In the West, we raise the ideal of individuality to mythical status. The myth is functional in our society, which is more than a collection of individuals—a working whole in its own right. The needs of society always find a balance with the needs of its individual members, but that balance varies widely in different societies over time. How does the ideology of individualism function within current Western society? And why has there been such resistance to collectivism in the United States in particular?

The actual balance of individual versus collective needs in each society is accepted to the degree it is perceived as normal and fair. Social organization during human origins was stable when things could change little from one generation to the next. In the case of life organized on a small-scale tribal basis, the social structure might be relatively egalitarian. Status within the group would simply be perceived as the natural order of things, readily accepted by all. Individuals would be relatively interchangeable in their social and productive functions. There would be little opportunity or reason not to conform. To protest the social order would be as unthinkable as objecting to gravity. For, gravity affects all equally in an unchanging way. There is nothing unfair about it.

Fast forward to modernity with its extreme specialization and rapid change, its idea of “progress” and compulsive “growth.” And fast forward to the universal triumph of capitalism, which inevitably allows some members of society to accumulate vastly more assets than others. The social arrangement is now at the opposite end of the spectrum from equality, and yet it may be perceived by many as fair. That is no coincidence. The ideology of individualism correlates with high social disparity and is used to justify it. Individualism leads to disparity since it places personal interest above the interest of the group; and disparity leads to individualism because it motivates self-interest in defense. Selfishness breeds selfishness.

While society consists of individuals, that does not mean that it exists for the sake of individuals. Biologists as well as political philosophers might argue that the individual exists rather for the sake of society, if not the species. Organisms strive naturally toward their own survival. Social organisms, however, also strive toward the collective good, often sacrificing individual interest for the good of the colony or group. While human beings are not the only intelligent creature on the planet, we are the only species to create civilization, because we are the most intensely cooperative intelligent creature. We are so interdependent that very few modern individuals could survive in the wild, without the infrastructure created by the collective effort we know as civilization. Despite the emphasis on kings and conquests, history is the story of that communal effort. The individual is the late-comer. How, then, have we become so obsessed by individual rights and freedoms?

The French Revolution gave impetus and concrete form to the concept of personal rights and freedoms. The motivation for this event was an outraged sense of injustice. This was never about the rights of all against all, however, but of one propertied class versus another. It was less about the freedoms of an abstract individual, pitted against the state, than about the competition between a middle class and an aristocracy. In short, it was about envy and perceived unfairness, which are timeless aspects of human and even animal nature. (Experiments demonstrate that monkeys and chimps are highly sensitive to perceived unfairness, to which they may react aggressively. They will accept a less prized reward when the other fellow consistently gets the same. But if the other fellow is rewarded better, they will angrily do without rather than receive the lesser prize.)

In tribal societies, envy could be stimulated by some advantage unfairly gained in breach of accepted norms; and tribal societies had ways to deal with offenders, such as ostracism or shaming. Injustice was perceived in the context of an expectation that all members of the group would have roughly equal access to goods in that society. Justice served to ensure the cooperation needed for society at that scale to function. Modern society operates differently, of course, and on a much larger scale. Over millennia, people adapted to a class structure and domination by a powerful elite. Even in the nominally classless society of modern democracies, the ideology of individualism serves to promote acceptance of inequalities that would never have been tolerated in tribal society. Instead, the legal definitions of justice have modified to accommodate social disparity.

The French revolution failed in many ways to become a true social revolution. The American “revolution” never set out to be that. The Communist revolutions in Russia and China intended to level disparities absolutely, but quickly succumbed to the greed that had produced the disparities in the first place. This corruption simply resulted in a new class structure. The collapse of corrupt communism left the way open for corrupt capitalism globally, with no alternative model. The U.S. has strongly resisted any form of collective action that might decrease the disparity that has existed since the Industrial Revolution. The policies of the New Deal to cope with the Depression, and then with WW2, are the closest America has come to communalism. Those policies resulted in the temporary rise of the middle class, which is now in rapid decline.

America was founded on the premise of personal liberty—in many cases by people whose alternative was literal imprisonment. The vast frontier of the New World achieved its own balance of individual versus collective demands. While America is no longer a frontier, this precarious balance persists in the current dividedness of the country, which pits individualism against social conscience almost along the lines of Republican versus Democrat. The great irony of the peculiar American social dynamic is that the poor often support the programs of the rich, vaunting the theoretical cause of freedom, despite the fact that actual freedom in the U.S. consists in spending power they do not have. The rich, of course, vaunt the cause of unregulated markets, which allow them to accumulate even more spending power without social obligation. The poor have every reason to resent the rich and to reject the system as unfair. But many do not, because instead they idolize the rich and powerful as models of success with whom they seek to identify. For their part, the rich take advantage of this foolishness by preaching the cause of individualism.

Statistics can be confusing because they are facts about the collective, not the individual. Average income or lifespan, for example, does not mean the actual income or lifespan of a given individual. One could mistake the statistic for individual reality—thinking, for example, that the average income in a “wealthy” society represents a typical income (which it rarely does because of the extreme range of actual incomes). For this reason, the statistics indicating economic growth or well-being do not mean that most people are better off, only that the fictional average person is better off. In truth, most are getting poorer!

Nowadays, social planning in general embraces a statistical approach to the common good. Statistics is a group concept, which is also true in epidemiology. Official strategies to deal with the current pandemic are necessarily oriented toward the collective good more than the individual. Obligatory due is paid, of course, to the plight of individuals, and medical treatment is individual; yet strategies concern the outcome for society as a whole. A balance is sought between the habitual satisfactions of life and the collective actions needed to stem the disease. Demands on the individual to self-restrain for the sake of the collective are bound to strain tolerance in a society used to individualism. It raises issues of fairness, when some are seen disregarding rules in the name of freedom, which others choose to obey in the name of the common good. But, as we have seen, fairness is a matter of what we have grown used to.

One thing we can be sure of: the more populated and interconnected the world becomes, the more the individual will have to give way to the common good. That may not mean a return to communism, but it will require more willingness to forfeit personal freedoms in the measure we are truly “all in it together.” Individualists should be realistic about the stands they take against regulation, to be sure the liberties they seek are tangibly important rather than merely ideological. Social planners, for their part, should recall that no one wants to be merely an anonymous statistic. Individualism will have to be redefined, less as the right to pursue personal interest and more as the obligation to use individual talents and resources for the common good.