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What Is Individualism?

The freedom to disagree with a group and speak openly on controversial matters is prized by those who believe in individualism.
Thomas Jefferson is often linked to the idea of individualism.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Images By: Keijo Knutas, Vacclav
  • Last Modified Date: 27 March 2014
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Individualism is an idea that has operated in numerous countries for several hundred years or more. It is most often tied to the United States, when Thomas Jefferson insisted the government function as an entity that sought to serve the rights and freedoms of the individual instead of to interfere with them and provoked the authoring of the Bill of Rights. Jeffersonian views were only partly individualist, however, since the Bill of Rights did nothing to protect slaves or Native Americans. True individualistic doctrine would oppose such a stance today.

Essentially, when a person endorses individualism, they believe that the person’s rights are far more important than the rights of any collective group (government or society) provided those rights are not exercised in a way that harms others. Exactly what the definition of “harm” is, is a highly debatable issue. A businessman who dumps pollutants into a lake might be viewed as exercising harmful behavior or not, depending on interpretation. Some individualists may argue against taxes collected to serve the common good, the necessity of public schooling, regulatory agencies established by governments, or any laws that inhibit rights. They would especially oppose the idea that society was a collective unit (often called collectivism), and that people needed legislation to be responsible or to take care of each other.

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Interestingly, individualism is frequently associated with the extreme right in the US, but this is not an easy marriage. While the extreme right frequently seeks lower taxes and less regulation, it also seeks to regulate behavior, especially on issues of abortion, sex education and gay marriage. These are attempts to impose moral standards on other individuals, which is not an individualistic stance. Typically, the true individualist may be most comfortable associating themselves with the US Libertarian Party.

On the opposite end of the spectrum to individualism is totalitarianism. In totalitarianism, government is never limited and can constantly infringe on the rights of the people, to any degree it wants. Collectivist governments are often far more limited, though this is not always the case. They may have set laws, invoke people’s participation in the creating or maintenance of laws, and make determinations of basic rights.

The US would be an example of a collectivist government (with a number of people holding individualist views). It does view society’s needs over the individual’s needs in some cases, but it additionally sets down laws that dictate basic rights and it works to protect those laws. In a collectivist stance, the needs of the many override the needs of a single person, though that person can vote with each election and still enjoys significant freedom. Striking a balance between maintaining individual and collective rights is very challenging. More strident collectivism minimizes freedoms to which individuals are entitled because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

People in the US are often identified as possessing highly individualistic traits. This doesn’t mean they hold consistent views of individualism. However, US folks may be more opinionated and have a stronger sense and feeling of entitlement to what their rights might be, whether at home or abroad. Such behavior may be contrasted to the behavior and thinking of those in societies that are more strongly collective or totalitarian in nature.

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Discuss this Article

MrsPramm
Post 3

@pleonasm - It does depend on the kind of libertarian though. Not all of them are absolute about thinking the government should withdraw.

And in some cases they have a good point. I know that Detroit often gets pointed out as a place where libertarian values are shining, because there simply isn't the government presence to provide certain services.

I don't know if that is really a good example of collectivism vs. individualism though, because it seems to me that they've basically replaced government structure with their own structures of various kinds (like transport and security and so forth). So I don't think it's any different from the USA as a whole, just on a smaller level.

pleonasm
Post 2

@Croydon - I think it depends on what kind of social individualism you follow. I definitely know members of the libertarian party who think that freedom of speech should mean that anyone can say anything any time they like and the burden is on the listener to protect themselves.

That's the way they seem to feel about most things, actually. Which is why I'd never make a good libertarian. I think people should take care of each other. I like individualism to some extent, but not to the point where the community loses cohesion.

croydon
Post 1

You can see the basic tension between the main tenants of individualism whenever people talk about freedom of speech. If you believe in individualism, of course you think people should have freedom of speech and that is often used as a defence when someone says something that offends or hurts someone else.

But speech can be very harmful. It can incite people to riot, for example, or accuse people of false crime or any number of things that can cause harm.

So, even though some people think that when you define individualism you are automatically saying that people can do whatever they want, it's much more complicated than that. If you add the caveat that people cannot knowingly cause harm to others then that is going to limit you a great deal.

And that includes freedom of speech. It's not clear cut, of course, because one person's riot is another person's political protest, but in some cases it is fairly clear when someone should not be allowed to say something, even in an individualist society.

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