Individualism: Good or Bad?

If you subscribe to my email (which you should!), back in a November email, I narrated the attack of a Facebook troll who trotted down an ad hominem line of attack aligned against many the supporters of a free society. In essence, it is this: “You are all just rugged individualists with greedy appetites to take from others, void of compassion or care.”

My readers already know that is false for this blog’s author, but it’s not just false for me. Many people who call themselves libertarians are regularly attacked by the same argument. So I wanted to just bring a few points of clarity to the issue of individualism.

First of all, let’s just review the basic definition of libertarianism. Libertarianism is a political philosophy (and nothing more) that advocates for as minimal a government as possible, based on (or resulting from) the ideas of property rights and the non-aggression principle (I wrote on both these at the posts each are linked to). It doesn’t, in and of itself, subscribe to any religious position (it’s not a religious principle) or moral positions related to what is good or bad to do beyond those two basic foundations. Despite what the activists may communicate, libertarianism is simply a political philosophy. (Previous blog dealing with this: “Libertarianism v. Authoritarianism”)

Back to the idea of individualism. This idea is also foundational in the libertarian political philosophy, but not in the way that it is often used in attack. Individualism merely means that each person is responsible for their own actions, and the consequences of those actions.

Most people’s reaction: “well, duh.” But then look around you at the world we live in. Look at the students who are coming out of college straddled by tens of thousands of dollars of debt. The movement for government cleansing of all student debt is growing. “I shouldn’t have to pay all this off,” they say.

In this example, there is the counter-argument to be made that government has made the credit for college cheap and consequently, through the logical incentive processes, flooded the market with more and more people with college degrees, thereby diminishing the value of those degrees and driving up the price of college. (This is entirely true.) Doesn’t the government hold some responsibility, as well? Oh, most certainly, and part of the purpose of this blog is to clarify the nature of just this sort of thing.

But that does not eliminate the responsibility of the individual who took out the loans. There was not a gun placed at his or her head.

This is but one example. Without exhausting your attention, I’ll leave your imagination (or, more likely, your observational experience) to more. Individuals are responsible for their own choices and the consequences of those choices. Individualism is, then, put another way, personal responsibility.

An elementary concept that seems to be rapidly vanishing amidst my own generation.

What does individualism, in this sense, encourage? It encourages thrift. It encourages work ethic. It encourages forethought, planning, and seeking good and varied council, and follow through. It encourages taking responsibility for your own choices and actions.

So, what is usually meant by individualism when used in attack? Just the way it was used against me. Selfish. Self-centered. Greedy. Uncaring. Lack of compassion.

But that’s not what individualism is for the advocates of liberty. That is an entirely different sort of ideology than personal responsibility. Individual does not preclude working together, collaboration, mutual support, community, relationship, generosity, or any other similar ideas! In fact, I would argue emphatically, it encourages them.

(In a very real spiritual sense, I believe that Christians have a spiritual obligation to volunteer their resources, time, talents and influence in ways to help others. That is not a libertarian or non-libertarian position. Libertarianism, again, is a political philosophy that does not deal with that, at all, except to say that the government cannot use threat of force to take from some against their will and give it to others.)

Individualism (personal responsibility) and compassion (voluntary generosity) are the best and most powerful of companions. The strongest of societies are built on both.

On a somewhat related note, many people are very much unaware of what it means to be conservative, liberal or libertarian. I have been taking a class on this over at Liberty Classroom, and will be relaying the history of these ideologies and what they mean over the coming months. I hope you’ll be watching for them! And again, please subscribe to my email. I don’t send out many, but when I do, you’ll enjoy them!

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