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The Need for a New Individualism

The Need for a New Individualism

10 Min.
September 15, 2010

January/February 2005 -- America has been the land of the individual, and most Americans have thought of themselves as individualists. We still speak favorably of individual rights, individual initiative, individual responsibility, individual opportunity, and individual achievement.

But America's individualism is disappearing and with it our political freedom and the moral foundations of our society. This is because the economic and political manifestations of individualism—freedom and capitalism—cannot stand on their own; they require sound moral ideas of rational self-interest that are manifest in sound moral character. Those moral ideas justify this freedom, and that moral character requires the support of the culture and of institutions based on those ideas.

Today paternalist economic and political policies treat adults like infants who can't care for themselves without government help. Those policies, and the morality on which they are based, seduce too many independent achievers, turning them into to weak, sniveling, servile dependents of pandering ruling elites.

If our future is to be a bright one appropriate for human beings, proud Americans will need a consistent, explicit, and unapologetic new individualism that will restore political freedom and create a culture worth preserving.


America is the quintessential individualist country. For our Founders, the purpose of government was to protect the life, liberty, and property of each individual and to otherwise leave us alone. For the first century and a half of our history the federal government remained relatively small and state and local governments provided only basic services, principally police protection and law courts.

The story of America has been one of millions of immigrants coming to these shores. What attracted them? Immigrants sought to escape the poverty and tyranny of their home countries, to improve their own economic conditions, to raise their own families, to start their own businesses, to farm their own land, to live according to their own religion or other beliefs, to enjoy their own lives.

Immigrants coming to America manifested the moral characteristics of all true individualists. Our ancestors wanted the best for themselves. They took the initiative needed to achieve their goals. They realized that nothing in life is guaranteed and that to achieve those goals they would need to take risks in a new country. Immigrants understood the need to think, to use their minds and their famed Yankee ingenuity. Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s understood the independent thinking of Americans; he found "that in most of the operations of the mind each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding." In other words, we think for ourselves.

Tocqueville described individual Americans in the new free country as "intoxicated with their new power. They entertain a presumptuous confidence in their own strength." These rugged individualists looked first to self but were hardly misanthropes, associating with others of their own choosing. Again from Tocqueville: "Individualism...disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself." Even when helping their neighbors, Americans "are fond of explaining almost all actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another."

That spirit of individualism allowed Americans to be pioneers in fields such as science and technology—Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were scientists and inventors—industry, entertainment, and every other field that contributes to life and prosperity. America's national enterprise was really an enterprise of million of individuals living their own lives and pursuing their own goals. What is great and glorious about America comes from the freedom and dignity accorded to each individual.


That's not the America that we live in today. America in the early twenty-first century is a very politically and morally confusing place. The Republican Party, which traditionally stands for limited government, has been in the ascendancy since Ronald Reagan and under President George W. Bush has controlled both houses of Congress. Yet the size and burden of government have not been reduced; indeed, in many areas it has expanded. While President Reagan spoke of eliminating the federal Department of Education, President Bush has used it aggressively to impose policies on local schools. A look at non-defense spending in the first three years of each administration since Lyndon Johnson's shows a cumulative increase under Bush of 23.4 percent, second only to Johnson's 24.8 percent increase and comparing unfavorably with a decrease under Reagan.

Many commentators see the polarization of the country into Republican "red" states and Democratic "blue" states arising from underlying value differences. In the red states voters worry that freedom is threatened when a society loses the moral compass traditionally supplied by religion and long-standing customs, and drifts into moral relativism. They see such relativism as responsible for social pathologies like crime, youth violence, broken families, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, which in turn give rise to more government-assistance programs with accompanying tax hikes. They often favor policies of censorship or the regulation of morality on the strange-sounding premise that freedom must be limited in order to be preserved.

Often, perhaps out of frustration at a lack of control over the forces they see undermining public order, these citizens invest much emotion and effort in symbolic battles over values. They want to keep "under God" in the pledge of allegiance even though there is no evidence that kids' reciting those words each day make schools less violent or kids more likely to learn. They favor a display of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse lobby even though there is no evidence that this makes judges and lawyers more likely to respect the principles of the Constitution that they often ignore.

Voters in the blue states fear that traditional morality and religious dogma indeed will lead to intolerance and repression. They see social pathologies arising from material disadvantages and inequalities. An individual's economic status, they believe, determines his morals and behavior. Those with this view favor government-imposed economic regulations, welfare programs, and transfer payments. Yet this approach in the past has failed and in fact contributed to those pathologies by rewarding moral irresponsibility. Further, by its nature this approach limits the liberty of the entrepreneurs who create wealth to begin with, and it takes rather than protects the property of the citizens.

Today's political and moral confusion, which limits liberty, is in part the result of the disappearance from the public dialogue and consciousness—and thus from too many individual minds—of the concept of individualism.


The erosion of liberty and its underlying moral foundation is in large part the result of the ideas in the twentieth century that challenged the prevailing individualism, especially during times of social stress and transformation. Further, until well into the twentieth century America's individualism was not philosophically defended. Indeed, Tocqueville's observation about the 1830s was applicable nearly into the 1930s: "In no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided."

The twentieth century saw challenges to the individualism from fascism, which placed the race, ethnic group, or state ahead of the individual, and communism, which placed economic class first and advocated the supremacy of the proletariat or "working" class. These systems were necessarily dictatorial; they sacrificed and enslaved millions of individuals. In the end, it was easy for most Americans to reject these challenges, and it is difficult for many young people today to appreciate that such challenges were ever taken seriously.

But the twentieth century also saw less harsh and thus more seductive challenges to individualism coming from socialist and the welfare state paternalism based on the moral premise that we are each our brother's keeper. In America, the Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society assigned to government the job of correcting the perceived failures of the free market and free institutions, and of actually caring for the material needs of individuals—for food, housing, education, jobs, medical care, retirement income, and the like—in the name of a better society but also in the name of a different, more relevant individualism.

In reaction to this challenge, thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek demonstrated that government economic planning must necessarily fail. The Public Choice school associated with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock showed that government philosopher kings could not be impartial and above institutional interests as they devised and administered alleged solutions to social problems. Yet these defenses, as we shall see, ignored the moral arguments for individualism that were, in fact, provided by Ayn Rand , beginning most notably with her 1943 novel The Fountainhead . But this crucial defense was ignored until recent decades.

Today's political and social landscape is largely defined by the paternalist or "collectivist lite" challenge to individualism.


In post-World War II America the political Right retained the vocabulary of individualism. Barry Goldwater's 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, served as the manifesto that propelled him to the 1964 Republican nomination for president. Concerning conservatives, Goldwater maintained that "the first thing he has learned about man is that each member of the species is a unique creature. Man's most sacred possession is his individual soul." Secondly, "the economic and spiritual aspects of man's nature are inextricably intertwined. He cannot be economically free...if he is enslaved politically; conversely, man's political freedom is illusory if he is dependent for his economic needs on the state." And finally, "man's development, in both its material and spiritual aspects, is not something that can be directed by outside forces. Every man, for his individual good and for the good of society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings."

That philosophy informed much of the modern conservative movement, which included the man who launched his own political career with his powerful speech in support of Goldwater's nomination: Ronald Reagan used similar rhetoric in his successful quest for the presidency.

In the years since Reagan, the collapse of Soviet communism has vindicated economic thinkers like Mises and Hayek. But ironically, in America and elsewhere the reality of individualism has faded in part because the economic and political cases for freedom were not based on a solid moral foundation. A survey of the political landscape today shows the status of individualism.

Libertarians. Libertarians for the most part are consistent advocates of individual liberty in the economic and political realms and the true heirs to America's individualist political tradition. Think tanks like the Cato Institute and Reason Foundation produce cutting-edge critiques of the failures of government programs that limit liberty, especially in the economic area, and the weakening of the rule of law by arbitrary government power.

While many libertarians come from the natural-law and natural-rights tradition of America's Founders, others come from a limited, usually economic, utilitarian perspective. Their view of the free-market system, for example, in the words of Mises, "presupposes that people prefer life to death, health to sickness, nourishment to starvation, abundance to poverty. It teaches man how to act in accordance with these valuations." While this might be a good generalization, it does not take account of the real fact that many people would not make such choices. Islamists prefer strapping explosives to themselves or their children in order to kill other children. Less dramatic examples are individuals who would accept less abundance in the name of a "social justice" based on envy. Winston Churchill said, "socialism is the equal sharing of misery," and he was right that many opponents of freedom are not simply confused about the economic consequences of their policies—rather, they want to pull down the well-to-do more than to raise up those in need.

Thus, while libertarians tend to be consistent defenders of economic individualism and limited government, they often ignore the moral justification of such freedom. Further, while their impact on policy is growing, it is still less than that of traditional conservatives and neo-conservatives.

Traditional conservatives. While traditional conservatives do tend to acknowledge the importance of the individual—often from a religious understanding of the unique value of each person—they also fear power and the unrestrained ego. They see the abuses of a Hitler and Stalin and the murderous mobs in the streets during the French revolution as manifestations of the same evil. Such conservatives see the importance of religion, customs, and traditions, and private institutions such as families, fraternal organizations, and churches, in restraining the ego and providing a nurturing environment in which individuals can develop their virtues and live productive lives. Conservatives thus favor limited, constitutional governments with checks and balances.

But too often conservatives use government to support beliefs and institutions that they see as essential to restrain the ego. Further, they often treat these institutions as ends in themselves, sacrificing the individual and freedom for the good of society. These institutions and the attitudes, if not the laws, that support them can stifle individual creativity.

Further, many conservatives, often as a function of their religious perspective, are uncomfortable taking rational, individual self-interest too far. They feel they need to invoke some collective good to justify individual liberty. Thus, they might argue that tax cuts that their critics contend help the rich also help create job opportunities and lower prices for the poor. While this is true, the principal justification of economic freedom is that it is the individual's right, not some collective good.

Finally, justifying individual liberty based on religious beliefs or mere tradition will not convince those who do not share one's religion and for whom traditions hold little sway.

Compassionate and neo-conservatives. Neo-conservatives often are ex-leftists who have become aware of both the economic problems and the social pathologies created by traditional leftist policies. They tend to favor many elements of the social and political vision of traditional conservatives. But unlike traditional conservatives they do not have a general fear of big government. Irving Kristol, the godfather of the movement, says of neo-cons: "They are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on 'the road to serfdom.' Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed, inevitable.... People have always preferred strong government to weak.... Neocons feel at home in today's America to a degree that more traditional conservatives do not." This is why in the neo-con pantheon of political heroes men like "Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked."

Neo-conservatives, in fact, are social engineers on the Right. While particular policies that they favor might be more pro-individual than those of the Left, the neo-con view of government is fundamentally anti-individualistic.


Given the problems and limitations of those on the Right who defend freedom in one form or another, it is necessary to define more exactly the nature of individualism. In particular it is necessary to understand the facts and ideas that necessitate and morally justify economic and political liberty for individuals.

Ayn Rand offered the most consistent and integrated understanding of individualism. She began with the fact that the fundamental alternative for living creatures is life or death. But human beings are unique creatures. We have free will and a rational capacity. Indeed, the phenomenon of making value choices is only possible for beings who can understand that alternatives and choices are possible, i.e., living human beings. The standard of all values thus is human life, and the goal of survival is obtained through the exercise of reason, the discovery of what will be in our self-interest. But because we are humans with extraordinary and wonderful capacities, mere physical survival is not our goal; rather, it is a happy, joyous, and flourishing life.

Further, we each exist fundamentally as individuals. We survive physically as individuals even as others might die, and we die as individuals even as others might continue to live. Our bodies are healthy or sick as individuals. And, most importantly, we think and we will as individuals. We must be free to use the judgment of our own minds or else our survival is precarious and dependent on others.

From this understanding we can identify the basic elements of true individualism.

First, true individualists will understand and feel that their own lives are their highest value, that to be alive is to be blessed with the potential for happiness, that they should treat their own lives with respect, and that they should strive with joy for the best within them. It would be odd if a person who believed in the importance and dignity of each individual also believed that he or she personally was simply an agent who should serve others, with little concern for his or her own life, dreams, and happiness.

Second, true individualists will understand that to strive for the best within them, they must hold reason as their highest value because it is that capacity that allows them to reflect upon themselves, on their moral nature, and to discover the means for their survival and flourishing. It was no accident that out of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason came John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and many other giants in the battle for liberty.

Each individual's survival and well-being requires self-directed action toward those goals. That rules out the false subjectivist form of individualism that says, "Do what feels good," with the assumption that thinking is not necessary. True individualism also rules out the Nietzschean will to engage some master passion, usually the quest for power, as an end in itself. That path leads one away from achieving the greatest fulfillment possible in one's life and more often than not leads to misery. True, rational individualists are not slaves to their appetites; they check the whim of the moment and subject it to critical examination.

Consider the extreme example of mind-altering drugs. While libertarians can rightly oppose the drug war as both ineffective and a limitation on freedom, one must recognize that addiction to such drugs—or many other things—is destructive of the unique and defining attributes of individuals: the rational mind and the free will. Would rational individuals with the deepest sense of self-worth and dignity put poison in their brains? Would a drug addict be considered a true individualist?

But "reason" does not mean superficial judgments or arrogant rationalizations. Here conservatives can point to an all-too-real danger that negates a true life guided by thought. Hayek rightly denounced the false individualism of those who believed they could apply reason to build a prosperous and peaceful society through socialist planning the way engineers apply reason to build machines.

Reason means exercising the virtue of honesty, of always asking one's self, "Am I trying to understand the facts of reality, am I being truthful, am I willing to focus my mind and not evade?"

Third, true individualists understand that they are responsible for their own lives, actions, prosperity, and happiness. Rand said, "As man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul." It is not simply our genetic makeup, economic class, environment, or other accidental factors that determine our character or beliefs. We each, as individuals, do so. Even in the most adverse circumstances individuals can take charge of their own souls; in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes how he discovered personal freedom in a concentration camp—a freedom of will and thought that even the Nazi torturers could not take away. While individualists will recognize that they certainly can benefit from good parents, friends, and teachers, we each must understand that ultimately we are responsible for our own character and actions.

Further, unlike lower animals, we must create the material means of our survival and flourishing. We must discover how to produce food, shelter, clothing, medicines, printing presses, electric power, automobiles, airplanes, spaceships, computers, and all those things that make survival and flourishing possible. The true individualist is a creator.

Fourth, true individualists take pride in their achievements. Such individuals welcome responsibility for their own lives because, as adults, responsibility is the opportunity and path to the joy of achievement. Achievements are manifestations of their virtues and right actions. It might involve inventing a new scientific device or making a new scientific discovery; designing a house or laying the bricks for a house; writing a poem or a business plan; making a statue or a satellite; nurturing a new business to profitability or a new child to adulthood. While we as individuals might appreciate the assistance of others, it is only what we create ourselves that can give us pride. If we win a lottery we might be happy but we cannot be proud, because chance, not our own conscious and guided actions, was responsible for our windfall. Similarly, while we might provide some guidance and assistance to loved ones, individualists will understand that others will gain the greatest sense of self-worth and self-actualization only if they take responsibility for themselves. After all, the goal of parents is to guide their children to become independent adults, not to keep them infantile.

True pride, which Aristotle called "the crown of all the virtues," is not boastful and does not first seek approval of others. It is first and foremost self-knowledge. And proud individuals will refuse to accept moral censure or guilt for their virtues and moral knowledge.

Fifth, in society true individualists will assert the right to their own lives. They need not answer to a king, government, their neighbors, or society. They can pursue their dreams as they see fit. They will recognize that their lives are not means to the ends of others. This means that we must each be free to live by our own independent judgment about what is in our best interest. After all, our individual autonomy is defined by our minds, and if we are not allowed to use our own judgment, our autonomy is destroyed.

Sixth, true individualists will respect the equal rights of others. If in our souls we have a strong, burning sense of justice, we would never wish the unearned for ourselves. The morality of true individualists precludes taking by force or fraud either material goods or responsibility for actions or achievements that are not one's own. That would undermine our pride in ourselves. Further, if we value reason, productivity, honesty, and the like, we will value and appreciate those virtues in others and will not wish to be the destroyer of these virtues. That is why we will not wish to initiate the use of force or fraud against others, because we would be harming ourselves and destroying those values that we love. In other words, all of our relationships with others should be based on mutual consent.

Seventh, all true individualists will want a government that limits itself to protecting the life, liberty, and property of all individuals—not trying to run our lives and treating us in a paternalistic manner. They will see the government not as an agent to relieve them of responsibility for their lives and their neighbors of their wealth and liberty but as an agent to protect them from the initiation of force and to establish the general rules to facilitate relationships with others based on mutual consent.

Eighth, true individualists will want to live in a society of other individualists. They will benefit from trading goods and services with others. They will be educated, entertained, enlightened, and inspired by the achievements of others—by plays, movies, music, scientific discoveries, engineering feats, and every form of human achievement, which the true individualist will celebrate.

In The Fountainhead , one of Ayn Rand 's characters muses, "Don't work for my happiness, my brothers—show me your achievements—and the knowledge will give me the courage for mine." This expresses the thoughts and sentiments of true individualists. They will love such a society because of the individuals who make it up and will fight to preserve it from any threat in the same way they would fight to preserve specific attacks on their personal liberty.

Ninthly, true individualists will exercise the virtue of benevolence. They will understand that through their actions, example, and treatment of others, they can foster a society that gives them the means of material well-being and spiritual fulfillment.

This review of the elements of individualism shows that political freedom is not a starting point but, rather, an end point based on the nature of the individual and what is in the rational self-interest of each of us. This review also suggests that our need for freedom arises from our nature and the nature of moral principles, and that those principles must be manifest in the character of individuals if, in a society, citizens are to respect one another's rights and demand political freedom.

This review also suggests that where these ideas are absent from the minds of individuals and these moral principles absent from their souls and characters, freedom in societies will erode. The elements of individualism, unfortunately, today tend to be weak or missing from most of the political ideologies that are considered defenders of freedom, and that is why political liberty is weakened.


This understanding suggests that perhaps the greatest threat to individualism today comes from what can be described as political and moral paternalism, principally from the political Left but aided by moderates and "good government" politicians of all parties. Paternalists are would-be ruling elites who would treat adults as if they were children who are unable to run their own lives for themselves; these elites maintain that they want to care for such dependents, provide for their material and other needs, and regulate their lives for their—the dependents'—own good.

Past collectivist challenges to individualism—communism, fascism—were paternalist as well but also extremely brutal and thus easy for anyone with a semblance of reason and moral principles to reject. The welfare state and socialism might be thought of as the kinder, gentler forms that are thus more subtle and seductive, less obvious enemies; that are in some ways more dangerous because they are not seen as great threats. But their danger goes much deeper than limiting economic liberty.

On the surface it seems that paternalists simply wish to help others deal with problems such as unemployment, access to education and training, medical and retirement costs, and the like. In fact most paternalist elites also seek prestige—really, a false sense of self-worth—power, and income, and these require the existence of groups in need. To this end, they must curtail the liberty of individuals, eliminate the economic independence of individuals, and undermine the ethos of individualism. The problem for the paternalist is that in a free society, individuals who wish to prosper can work hard, improve their knowledge and skills, and advance their station in life, as our immigrant ancestors and so many Americans each day so dramatically demonstrate.

But the economic method of paternalism ensures economic dependence by ensuring that the economy will not function at its best. The immediate victims of redistribution and regulation will be those who have their money taken and their freedom curtailed. But the ripple effects of these policies will rob others of opportunities. For example, minimum-wage hikes often mean that businesses will cut work hours and employment for marginal workers. The adverse effects of these policies will create the illusion of "market failures," a pool of dependents, and thus a perceived requirement for more government intervention. Many individuals, viewing this system in action but not understanding that it is of the paternalists' own making, will come away with the mistaken belief that in the economic realm they cannot take responsibility for their own lives.

The paternalists can also expand the dependent class by offering programs, initially to help the "poorest of the poor"—free school lunches for kids, social security, college loans—but then extend those programs to higher-income individuals as a means to secure political support.

In other words, the paternalist is like a quack doctor who breaks a patient's leg in order to have patients, doesn't fix the leg, and charges a hefty price for aspirin to reduce the pain.


But the maintenance of a dependent class requires more than the weakening of economic independence. Paternalists must also corrupt moral ideas and moral character, that is, must undermine the elements of individualism that support political and economic liberty.

The paternalist, for example, feels—and wants his dependents to feel—that somehow it is "unjust" for some individuals to prosper—even through their own efforts—while others do not—even if it is through their own flaws or errors. Thus, they posit a right of all individuals to certain goods—medical care, retirement income, job training—and to certain economic outcomes—a distribution of wealth that does not leave too many rich or poor individuals. In other words, they want individuals to believe that need equals entitlement. This false idea undermines the individualist belief that in society we each have a right to our own life. It is the corrupted belief that tells us, "Yes, you have certain rights but you also have obligations to others—other than to respect their equal right to freedom." Individuals who accept this corrupted belief will find it difficult to argue against encroachments on their liberty. This moral confusion will mean that they feel guilty about acting fully in accordance with rational self-interest and often will not have the will or emotional commitment to fight such encroachments.

Essential to the maintenance of a paternalist system is an undermining of the morality of the mind - an essential aspect of the individualist morality. Paternalists wish individuals to approach moral and economic issues not with thought but, rather, with emotions not subject to rational evaluation. Demagogues have been with us since the first democracies in Greece. The particular appeals offered by paternalists today include a sense of entitlement, envy, and indignation, which are meant to stop the thinking process and warp the moral sense.

The sense of entitlement in the context of a paternalist system is the emotion of a child. A child feels—not thinks, but feels—that "I have desires, and someone must fulfill them." Mature adults graduate to an individualist understanding that they are the principal agents responsible for satisfying their desires and questioning whether those desires are in their true self-interest to begin with.

Envy usually denotes the feeling that someone owns something that the envier wants, often accompanied by the feeling that somehow the owner does not deserve it. Envy thus often entails more of a desire to pull others down rather than to raise one's self or others up. In its most virulent form, envy is the emotion and moral choice of those who know, implicitly or explicitly, that their problems are of their own making and that the prosperity and happiness of others is of theirs. The envious individual desires to destroy that which is a reproach and reminder to them of their own failings. As Ayn Rand explained, envy is "hatred of the good for being the good."

The paternalist must foster envy. To the extent that dependents accept the paternalist's immoral premises and thus manifest the emotion of envy, they will react with moral indignation at those who hesitate not only to acknowledge their right to taxpayer dollars but also their status as victims and thus their moral superiority. Watch a demonstration of screaming, chanting poverty activists who feel they are slighted and that their handouts are too small. Their emotions are required to short-circuit their thought processes. (This was the function of the "Two Minutes Hate" in George Orwell's 1984.)

Further, the paternalist must foster in the individuals who are envied a sense of guilt, which will prevent them from rejecting envious individuals' emotions in favor of a reasoned approach to moral principles.

Most middle-class Americans are in fact hardworking, conscientious, good to their families, and the like; in these things they are members of the productive, responsible class of individualists who live for the most part by their own efforts—not the extreme haters of achievement. To keep control, paternalists need to control these individuals as well. They do so by feeding them small benefits that can build up over time. They might offer their kids free lunches in school. They might offer the company for which they work government subsidies, trade protection, or other such assistance. If these individuals lose their jobs, paternalists will give them government unemployment benefits, and when they retire, paternalists will offer them social security and Medicare—paid for by making it difficult for these individuals to afford these things for themselves. Such Americans might feel that they paid for these benefits out of deductions from their paychecks. But more and more add-ons such as the new prescription drug benefit show these to be welfare programs.

Such individuals find themselves in a state of ethical insecurity and without the ideas and understanding to counter their situation. They do not want to think of themselves as parasites and victims, for they still take some pride in their personal efficacy, at least in some realms of their lives. Perhaps they look with scorn on blatant cases of irresponsible individuals who manifest the worst of the parasites—for example, fat welfare mothers with a dozen kids by a dozen different fathers, using their welfare money to purchase liquor and lottery tickets.

But these individuals might become indignant when discussing their need for government help with their medical bills or with tuition for their kids at college. They don't want to consider whether those bills are so high because of government programs and policies. In any case, what can they do to change things? They are simply victims of the system. In this case we see how paternalism has undermined the ethos of individualism.


The restoration of individual freedom and overthrow of the paternalist regime and ethos will require battles in several arenas. The intellectual battle for political and economic freedom has been won. The collapse of Soviet-style communism proved economists like Mises and Hayek to be correct. Theories purporting to show how political elites can successfully manage economies—for example, those of the Keynesian school—have been discredited. Scholarship and experience demonstrate the adverse effects of regulations of many industries and sectors, as well as the flexibility and vibrancy of market institutions. While there is still a need to get this information into more schools and universities and into the minds of politicians, journalists, community and opinion leaders, and the like, the intellectual case is beyond serious dispute.

The political battle has been tough going. One reason is that vested interest groups—paternalist patrons and their clients—resist giving up their special privileges. But the battle for freedom will also require that the moral ideas at the basis of individualism be clearly articulated and used to counter the assumptions of paternalism. These ideas will encounter the moral sense and emotions in individuals that run counter to individualist principles. Creative ways of arguing and appeals to what remains of sound moral principles in individuals' minds and habits in their souls will be necessary. Further, it will be necessary to address the paternalist assumptions as they are manifest in the culture and to counter them with individualist visions of what a culture can and should be.

Supporting Self-Interest. At the philosophical level, but with arguments that can be brought to bear on the political and social controversies of the day, it is necessary to reinforce the notion that we each as individuals have an unequivocal right to our own lives and thus can act in our rational self-interest without guilt. Most Americans are comfortable with self-interest in economics. We seek the highest salaries possible in professions we choose. We seek the lowest prices for goods and services of the quality we desire. Adam Smith expressed the maxim of economic self-interest when he wrote: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." This must not simply be the view in economic aspects of the lives of individuals but in every aspect.

Key to countering paternalism is to deal with the ideas and feelings that individuals usually have about their obligations to others. Even when individuals do not feel guilty for living their own lives as they see fit, and even when they understand that many individuals find themselves in need through flaws in their own moral code, character or actions, they feel - perhaps grudgingly - that they have a duty to help them out of their situation.

Obviously with family members or friends that we value, such help might be a good investment, since we would be saving a loved one that we value. But an individualist would understand not only that each individual ultimately must take responsibility for their own lives but also that paternalists have created the culture and ethos that make it harder for individuals to appreciate the need to pull themselves together and straighten out their lives. After all, paternalists need a dependent class.

It is also useful to emphasize that in a society of true individualists we would have far fewer social pathologies - individual failings, really -- since individuals would have such respect for themselves that they would live to their highest potential and not allow themselves to fall into such situations. Such a society would be one truly worth living in and would be in our true self-interest, since we would be educated, entertained, inspired, and enlightened by the achievements of our fellows.

Pride versus Paternalist Pandering. Another way to counter the paternalist pandering of the present system is to identify clearly its moral premises—a view of adults as children - and counter them with an appeal to pride. Most politicians appeal to voters and supporters with never-ending laundry lists of promised benefits and handouts. "If elected, I will make certain that every American has..." fill in the blank with any kind of material good or program. There is no end game for the paternalist since there is no end to the lists of desires that pandering politicians might dream up.

Since many citizens are very much mixed in their morality, appeals to shame and pride can be important weapons against the paternalist strategy. We might point out how citizens are being treated like infants. The paternalist says: "There, there little boys and girls. We know you're not up to the burden of raising your own children, earning enough money to educate them, insuring yourselves against illness or unemployment, saving for your retirement, tying your own shoes, or wiping your own noses without our help. Don't worry, we'll give you all you need." Proud individualists would find such paternalism a personal insult.

Paternalism is particularly dangerous because government benefits have been doled out gradually and built up, dragging individuals further down into the depths of dependency. Many Americans concede liberty but console themselves by pleading for the return of some of their money in the form of government benefits. As responsible individuals we should feel anger and resentment at the politicians who created and perpetuated this system, who are turning us into beggars. When such politicians offer us more handouts, we should react as we would if they offered us heroin. We should see politicians as pushers who addict us to government. They destroy our economic autonomy like heavy drug users destroying their autonomous minds. How many citizens want to think of themselves as pathetic, morally cripples created to serve the needs of paternalists?

Cultural Battles. Another battleground for reestablishing support for individual liberty is the culture. For individuals who are not professional philosophers or thinkers, values are usually communicated and reinforced in their moral habits through culture. and thus, this is a field to which the friends of freedom must pay increased attention. So we must attend to what values are celebrated in art, movies, TV shows and to what individuals are praised for, what achievements, in the media, in church sermons, by colleagues, friends, and family.

Of course, culture is not an arena in which one can fight battles the way one might do over a public policy before a legislative body. But consider just a small example of how that battle might be fought. Statues are meant to represent heroes, those whom we should honor for great achievements. Usually statues are of politicians or military leaders. Sometimes they are of artists, composers, or great authors: Michelangelo, Beethoven, Shakespeare. We need more statues of business leaders and entrepreneurs who communicate important values concerning man the creator. For example, currently the pharmaceutical industry is under attack for problems with some products. But this is an industry that more than nearly any other, has saved lives, eased suffering, and improved the quality of life. Citizens wishing to fight for an individualist culture might raise money to erect statues to individual men and women who have made great discoveries in the field of medicine.

The best example of cultural as well as intellectual promotion of individualism is found in the novels of Ayn Rand . Presenting her themes in stories made the individualist morality more real than expositions in philosophical textbooks. We see in motion pictures today some of these individualist themes being taken up the notion of excellence in The Incredibles and love for one's work in The Aviator. For individualists, the arts are a cultural battleground they must move into.


Individualism has political, ethical, and cultural meanings. Politically, it stands for individual liberty, the notion that each of us should be free to live our own lives as we see fit, as long as we respect the equal rights of others. Ethically, it means valuing ourselves; taking responsibility for our own happiness; striving for the best within us; taking pride in our achievement; and never accepting guilt for our virtues. Culturally, it means fostering, reinforcing, and celebrating the elements of individualism.

Today, libertarians make valid economic and political arguments for freedom but often ignore that case. Conservatives understand the need for a moral foundation but often favor religion and tradition, which are often unconvincing to many if not just plain wrong. A new individualism would provide that moral basis to buttress freedom and a society of proud achievers who would never tolerate limits on their legitimate liberty.

Political freedom cannot be maintained without individualist ideas and morality in the hearts and minds of enough people in a society. Thus, as we fight for freedom in this country, we must fight for a new individualism that will serve as the foundation for that freedom.

Edward Hudgins
About the author:
Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins, former Director of Advocacy and Senior Scholar at The Atlas Society, is now President of the Human Achievement Alliance and can be reached at

Ideen und Ideologien