Rethinking Individualism

to avert the worst tragedy in the history of civilization

Photo by Pat Whelen on Unsplash

In the history of civilization, Liberal society is the best humanity has ever done in culture’s most important aspect: justice. The principle of maximizing liberty for all and the existence of a democratic political process (which is necessary for liberty for all) make it so. A market-based economy will always be the inevitable result of co-existing human beings sharing liberty.

Individualism is universally acknowledged as being intrinsic to Liberalism. In “Pragmatism Against the American Grain” here in Medium, however, Laura Nelson referred to two different strains of individualism. Both are deeply embedded in Liberalism, but one has dominated culturally, especially in the U.S.

Adherents of both forms of individualism would insist that they are committed to Liberal justice. Yet, the ‘two individualisms’ define the Great Divide in our contemporary politics.

According to Nelson, C.B. McPherson referred to the form of individualism that has dominated in the U.S. as “possessive” individualism. In it the focus is on one’s own being as an individual. For its adherents justice means maximizing the independence of individuals in society.

In the other form of individualism the focus is on relations among individuals. Here I’ll call it ‘socialized’ individualism. Its adherents have (so far) failed to realize that in it justice means mutual respect (of a basic kind).

I’ll be arguing that, rationally, our political divide must be resolved in favor of socialized individualism. For that very reason, the negative consequences of its adherents’ failure to understand it correctly cannot be overstated.

That failure has led people to react negatively to socialized individualism because they have disagreed with the incorrect political-economic implications its adherents have claimed for it. In brief, proponents of socialized individualism, which coalesced politically in the U.S. as a result of the Great Depression, have favored using government to provide for individuals who are lacking ‘sufficient’ material resources. For proponents of possessive individualism that is an attack on independence that necessarily involves all members of the community (or at least all taxpayers).

That lack of understanding has thus contributed to a completely unnecessary Divide, but one that threatens to rend Liberal society asunder. That would be the most profound tragedy in the history of civilization.

I submit that when it comes to the just governance of society both sides of our Great Divide are about equally wrong. Properly understanding individualism would be real progress — an advance in justice that would transform society. We’ll see how, by re-thinking individualism, the ultimate goals that both sides of our Divide have for society can be actually achieved.

Any adherent of possessive individualism would respond that it already requires mutual respect — for persons and property. The problem there is that the case for mutual respect within the argument for possessive individualism is in fact an argument for socialized individualism.

Please give me a chance to explain.

It all goes back (way back) to John Locke. He literally wrote the book on what would become Liberalism. More than a hundred years before Adam Smith, he conceptualized that which McPherson would dub possessive individualism. [Two Treatises of Government (1689)]

For Locke, individualism starts with the “State of Nature” (whether as a hypothetical construct or as something he thought actually existed at one time he doesn’t make exactly clear). That is a state of human existence in which people live as utterly independent individuals. They could interact with one another as individuals (peacefully or not) and could engage in trade, but in the State of Nature people would not live together in groups.

Some people think of the State of Nature as merely non-civilized existence. That is incorrect. Non-civilized human beings have co-existed together in societies. People living as utterly independent individuals, in the complete absence of any formal society whatsoever, is the definitive condition of Locke’s State of Nature.

That is the source of Locke’s individualism. According to him, in forming a society of any kind people ‘surrender’ that radically individualized status; in forming societies people’s ultimate goal should therefore be to approximate as closely as possible the radically independent individualism of the State of Nature.

Although there is no society in his State of Nature, there is, Locke insists, law: the “Natural Law” (not to be confused with the ‘Law of Nature’, i.e. ‘survival of the fittest’). In one sense the Natural Law is the rules of conduct ‘written on the hearts of men by their Creator’. For Locke the Natural Law also follows, secularly, from the “Natural Rights” people would possess in the State of Nature.

Those Rights are, for Locke, life, liberty, and property. According to him, people would have those Rights, not by decree or by mutual agreement or by the Word of God, but by the conditions of existence in the State of Nature: to live as an utterly independent being would be to have life, absolute maximum liberty, and (legitimately) whatever property one could acquire through one’s own efforts and (voluntary) trade.

Locke does accept that in the State of Nature those Natural Rights, as conditions of existence, cannot successfully translate into enforceable constraints on conduct. In the end, in that situation each person could only be a law unto oneself, choosing to obey the Natural Law, to respect others’ life, liberty, and property, or not.

Locke therefore acknowledges that that in the State of Nature a person could have any of those Natural Rights only insofar as one could defend them against any other who might seek to take any of them. For Locke that is the reason humans have ‘surrendered’ the maximal liberty of the State of Nature to form societies: to make life, liberty, and property more secure.

It’s easy to see how society makes those more secure. It is also easy to see how living in a society must necessarily limit liberty compared to life in the State of Nature. So the central problem for society, in Locke’s thinking, is to maximize individuals’ independence by maximizing liberty.

First of all, for Locke liberty is a Natural Right. Within society, rather than being a condition of existence, liberty is a Right according to ‘reason’: since it would be a condition of existence for human beings in the Sate of Nature, it must be recognized as a Right people have by virtue of being human.

The plausibility of that argument, though, is dependent on Locke’s State of Nature. The fact is that we humans are social beings who have always lived together in societies (but for rare individuals who have left society, having acquired sufficient knowledge and equipment to survive outside it). So Natural Rights cannot follow, rationally, from a State of Nature in which humans did exist as radically independent beings.

Locke, though, has another argument for liberty as the condition of justice for co-existing human beings. He began by asserting that injustice is being “subject to the arbitrary will” of another person (and anyone who believes in equality, such as adherents of socialized individualism, must agree that it is). The opposite of injustice — justice — is the opposite of that condition of subordination — liberty.

So even without Natural Rights, liberty is for Locke the predicate of justice for human beings co-existing in society. Justice is liberty.

One can see how that approach to justice could be described as “possessive.” It’s all about ‘me’ and ‘mine’: my life, my property, my liberty.

Accepting the ‘rightness’ of that position can only be a matter of belief. Rationally, the problem for that radically individualistic approach to justice is that there is no place in it for constraints on liberty (people doing whatever they want) in the interest of justice.

One can assert that everyone’s liberty ‘ends at the person and property of any other human’, but that is problematic. Stated most broadly, whatever the constraints on liberty that might be formulated, the true source of justice would become, not liberty, but the constraints that would limit liberty in the interest of justice (or the source of those constraints).

It is in the second of his Treatises that Locke takes up all that has been considered to this point. The whole of the first of his Treatises is concerned with his belief in equality (which he gets from the Bible, but is a belief that can also be strictly secular).

For Locke, the recognition of human equality is in effect a precondition for justice. It is what makes justice possible. It is of course equality that, for Locke, requires all people to respect all other people’s persons and property.

Given his belief in equality, however, Locke’s own (second) argument for liberty as the predicate of justice should have instead recognized mutual respect as the predicate of justice. If injustice is being subject to the arbitrary will of any other person (because it directly violates the precondition of equality), then the most immediate inference for justice is that everyone must refrain from subjecting any other person to one’s own “arbitrary will.”

That is mutual respect. Mutual respect is the ethic of the socialized form of individualism. It is all about recognizing one’s fellow human beings and taking them into account in the course of living life in coexistence with other human beings.

Although there is no limit there on how justly one might act, i.e. how much one might take others into account, at a minimum mutual respect means refraining from, in Locke’s terms, subjecting any other person to one’s own arbitrary will. As the minimum condition of justice, that maximizes liberty in society as a practical matter. Properly understood, then, liberty is the product of justice, not its predicate.

Adherents of the socialized form of individualism have invariably appealed to a belief in equality to advocate for achieving (or at least ‘moving towards’) ‘social justice’ — most broadly, under the rubric of ‘democratic socialism’. Traditionally, they have focused on unemployment and, especially, poverty. Of late they seem to have settled on ‘inequalities in income/wealth’ for their focus.

All of that is incorrect. In making their case, they point, explicitly or implicitly, to the justness of political democracy based on equality.

Political democracy is a just social process. Yet, they are wrong.

The justness of democracy does not come directly from equality, but from the mutual respect implied by equality — the same mutual respect that would maximize liberty as a practical matter. That same mutual respect can be applied to the economic system (through a ‘democratically distributed income’) and as a result make the existing economy completely self-regulating (with built-in safeguards against inflation) while providing the means to eliminate unemployment (at no cost to anyone), poverty (without having to redistribute anything), taxes (of all kinds), and public debt (at all levels of government) — and increasing sustainability (even without additional regulations). [If interested, see “By Request: How to Transform the Society of any Nation (summarized in a ‘5 min read’)” here in Medium (in which I refer to the “democratically distributed income,” more neutrally, as the “allotted income”).]

Differences in income/wealth, however large, are not of themselves an issue of justice (though I personally believe that wealth co-existing with poverty is immoral). That same democratically distributed income could be extended to eliminate exploitation, but even then differences in income/wealth of any size could exist. Either way (eliminating exploitation or not), totally eradicating the social ills of unemployment and poverty (along with taxes and public debt, while increasing sustainability in a self-regulating economy) would be a product of justice, not the definition of a truncated aspect of it.

To realize justice completely, mutual respect as the ethic of justice must be divorced from beliefs altogether, to include a belief in equality. Otherwise, establishing it as the ethic for governing the governance of society inevitably becomes a matter of some imposing their beliefs on others. That is a violation of mutual respect, whatever its source.

Divorcing mutual respect from a belief in equality has been accomplished. If interested, see “Real Justice (summarized for a ‘5 min read’)” here in Medium.

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