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Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses independence and self-reliance. Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires, while opposing most external interference upon one's choices, whether by society, or any other group or institution.


In the English language, the word "individualism" was first introduced, as a pejorative, by the Owenites in the 1830s, although it is unclear if they were influenced by Saint-Simonianism or came up with it independently. A more positive use of the term in Britain came to be used with the writings of James Elishama Smith, who was a millenarian and a Christian Israelite. Although an early Owenite socialist, he eventually rejected its collective idea of property, and found in individualism a "universalism" that allowed for the development of the "original genius." Without individualism, Smith argued, individuals cannot amass property to increase one's happiness. William Maccall, another Unitarian preacher, and probably an acquaintance of Smith, came somewhat later, although influenced by John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, and German Romanticism, to the same positive conclusions, in his 1847 work "Elements of Individualism".

Political individualism

In political philosophy, the individualist theory of government holds that the state should protect the liberty of individuals to act as they wish as long as they do not infringe upon the liberties of others. This contrasts with collectivist political theories, where, rather than leaving individuals to pursue their own ends, the state ensures that the individual serves the whole society. The term has also been used to describe "individual initiative" and "freedom of the individual." This theory is described well by "laissez faire," which means in French "let [the people] do" [for themselves what they know how to do]. This term is commonly associated with a free market system in economics, where individuals and businesses own and control the majority of factors of production. Government interferences are kept to a minimum.

Individualists are chiefly concerned with protecting individual autonomy against obligations imposed by social institutions (such as the state). Many individualists believe in protecting the liberties of the minority from the wishes of the majority. Thus, individualists oppose democratic systems without constitutional protections existing that do not allow individual liberty to be diminished by the interests of the majority. These concerns encompass both civil and economic liberties. For example, they oppose any concentration of commercial and industrial enterprise in the hands of the state, and the municipality. The principles upon which this opposition is based are mainly twofold: that popularly-elected representatives are not likely to have the qualifications, or the sense of responsibility, required for dealing with the multitudinous enterprises, and the large sums of public money involved in civic administration; and that the "health of the state" depends upon the exertions of individuals for their personal benefit (who, "like cells", are the containers of the life of the body).

Economic individualism

The doctrine of economic individualism holds that each individual should be allowed autonomy in making his or her own economic decisions as opposed to those decisions being made by the state, or the community, for him or her. Moreover, it often advocates the private ownership of property as opposed to state or collective arrangements. In some countries, corporations have gained for themselves the legal status of individual persons.

Methodological individualism

For some individualists, who hold a view known as methodological individualism, the word "society" cannot refer to anything more than a very large collection of individuals. Society does not have an existence above or beyond these individuals, and thus cannot be properly said to carry out actions, since actions require intentionality, intentionality requires an agent, and society as a whole cannot be properly said to possess agency; only individuals can be agents. The same holds for the government. Under this view, a government is composed of individuals; despite that democratic governments are elected by popular vote, the fact remains that all of the activities of government are carried out by means of the intentions and actions of individuals. Strictly speaking, the government itself does not act. For example, the point is sometimes made that "we" have decided to enact a certain policy, and sometimes this usage is used to imply that the entity known as "society" supports the policy and thus it is justified. The methodological individualist points out that "we" in fact did not enact or carry out this policy; among those who voted, a certain group of people voted for the policy, individuals all, and another group voted against it. The decision that emerged was not made by the "people", or by the "government"; it was made by those on the winning side of the vote. This is significant because in any collective there exists individuals who oppose the policy whose wills are being overridden, and the use of "we" tends to obscure that fact. The individualist wishes to highlight the importance of the individual and prevent subsumption into a collective. For these reasons, methodological individualists tend to disagree with claims such as "we deserve the government we have, because we are doing it to ourselves," since perhaps that individual and very possibly many others disagree with the actions of the individuals who hold government power. That said, many individualists are willing to use "we" in reference to government or society as a convenient shorthand as long as the fact that these entities are composed of individuals is kept in mind.

Individualism and society

An individualist enters into society to further his or her own interests, or at least demands the right to serve his or her own interests, without taking the interests of society into consideration (an individualist need not be an egoist). The individualist does not lend credence to any philosophy that requires the sacrifice of the self-interest of the individual for any higher social causes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would argue, however, that his concept of "general will" in the "social contract" is not the simple collection of individual wills and precisely furthers the interests of the individual (the constraint of law itself would be beneficial for the individual, as the lack of respect for the law necessarily entails, in Rousseau's eyes, a form of ignorance and submission to one's passions instead of the preferred autonomy of reason).

Societies and groups can differ, in the extent to which they are based upon predominantly "self-regarding" (individualistic, and arguably self-interested) rather than "other-regarding" (group-oriented, and group, or society-minded) behavior. Ruth Benedict argued that there is also a distinction, relevant in this context, between "guilt" societies (e.g., medieval Europe) with an "internal reference standard", and "shame" societies (e.g., Japanmarker, "bringing shame upon one's ancestors") with an "external reference standard", where people look to their peers for feedback on whether an action is "acceptable" or not (also known as "group-think").

The extent to which society, or groups are "individualistic" can vary from time to time, and from country to country. For example, Japanese society is more group-oriented (e.g., decisions tend to be taken by consensus among groups, rather than by individuals), and it has been argued that "personalities are less developed" (than is usual in the West). The United States is usually thought of as being at the individualistic end of the spectrum, whereas European societies are more inclined to believe in "public-spiritedness", state "socialistic" spending, and in "public" initiatives.

John Kenneth Galbraith made a classic distinction between "private affluence and public squalor" in the USA, and private squalor and public affluence in, for example, Europe, and there is a correlation between individualism and degrees of public sector intervention and taxation.

Individualism is often contrasted with either totalitarianism or collectivism, but in fact there is a spectrum of behaviors ranging at the societal level from highly individualistic societies through mixed societies (a term the UKmarker has used in the post-World War II period) to collectivist. Also, many collectivists (particularly supporters of collectivist anarchism or libertarian socialism) point to the enormous differences between liberty-minded collectivism and totalitarian practices.

Individualism, sometimes closely associated with certain variants of individualist anarchism, libertarianism or classical liberalism, typically takes it for granted that individuals know best and that public authority or society has the right to interfere in the person's decision-making process only when a very compelling need to do so arises (and maybe not even in those circumstances). This type of argument is often observed in relation to policy debates regarding regulation of industries, as well as in relation to personal choice of lifestyle.

Individualist countries

A study by Geert Hofstede of 53 countries across 5 continents found the United States to be the most individualist country in the world along a continuum of individualism versus collectivism.

Individualism and US history

At the time of the formation of the United Statesmarker, many of its citizens had fled from state or religious oppression in Europe and were influenced by the egalitarian and fraternal ideals that later found expression in the French revolution. Such ideas influenced the founding fathers of the U.S. Constitution (the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans) who believed that the government should seek to protect individual rights in the constitution itself; this idea later led to the Bill of Rights. According to Ronald Scollon, the "fundamental American ideology of individualism" can be summarized by the following two statements: 1. The individual is the basis of all reality and all society. 2. The individual is defined by what he or she is not." Explaining the latter statement, he says that American individualism emphasizes that the individual is not subject to arbitrary laws, and not subject to domination by historical precedent and preference.

Howard Zinn, a frequent critic of U.S. society and culture, critiques American individualism with the following:

It is an irony that these rugged individuals so loved individualism that they ganged up together to enslave black people, steal land from Mexico, and carry out an ethnic cleansing of the continent.
At other times they ganged up to abuse and mistreat, among others within their borders, Chinese people and Japanese people and Jews and Catholics, before ganging up to abuse peoples of Central and South America and so on around the world.
A nation of individuals saying, "I am an individual.
Don't blame me for the collective crimes of this country."

See also


  1. Alex Kozulin. Vygotsky's educational theory in cultural context. Cambridge University Press, 2003. p. 443
  2. Scollon, Ronald. Intercultural Communication. Blackwell Publishing. 2001. p. 221
  3. Zinn, Howard (2005). A People's History of the United States: 1492-present. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. ISBN 0-06-083865-5.

Further reading

  • Shanahan, Daniel. (1991) Toward a Genealogy of Individualism. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0-870-23811-6.
  • Watt, Ian. (1996) Myths of Modern Individualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48011-6.
  • Barzilai, Gad. (2003). Communities and Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-11315-1.

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