Anti-Individualism, Conservative Style
Tibor R. Machan
Just to keep matters in balance, let me point out that although it is mostly the Left that hates individualism—remember, socialism means that we, humanity, are all just one organism—the Right’s hostility toward it is no less virulent. Just recall that both Hitler and Stalin hated individualism, in any of its varieties. American individualism, one that stresses the independent judgment of human beings—not their alleged and, not surprisingly, ridiculous, fictional independent or self-sufficient existence—does not suit either the Left or the Right, including some fairly powerful voices among American conservatives. Just consider the blurb peddling one currently rising conservative’s recent book, Peter Augustine Lawler’s Stuck With Virtue, The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future. “These insightful, provocative essays critique what the author sees as America’s ever-increasing individualistic habits and attitudes, centered on a view of the individual as self-sufficient and unencumbered.” As if that is what American individualism were about.
In fact, the caricature of individualism depicted in the above passage comes from just one, somewhat idiosyncratic, version of individualism that has an admittedly noticeable presence in the discipline of economics, both its neo-classical and Austrian varieties. But here this idea of the human individual functions as nothing more than a theoretical model that, as the late Milton Friedman made eminently clear, is self-consciously unrealistic. It is a bit like those artist depictions of a building about to be constructed in your neighborhood—nothing like what the building will actually be like, only an almost farcical version of it.
For Lawler and others on the Right to claim that this is the individualism that John Locke and the American founders left for us as our social-philosophical legacy is shameful. There are those on the Left, such as the communitarians—with their leaders such as Charles Taylor, Amitai Etzioni, and Thomas Spragens—who have hurled at us these distortions of American individualism and from them this is somewhat understandable. After all, the Left is philosophically committed to collectivism, the direct opposite of individualism. Here is one of their philosophical heroes, the French “father of sociology,” Auguste Comte about that topic: "Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…Positivism [the doctrine Comte developed] never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries....”
In one premier conservative journal, ISI’s The Intercollegiate Review—essay after essay can be read attacking American individualism with the distorted depiction I reproduced above. Why would conservatives, who are supposed to be conserving, at least in America, the ideas and ideals of the American founders, make such a big deal of the alleged flaws in individualism?
It is the one-size-fits-all mentality, that’s what lies behind it. Individualism is notoriously eclectic in the sort of human lives it regards as perfectly legitimate, acceptable, capable of being lived properly, virtuously. But what do so many conservatives want? To get a clear view of this one need but read the non-fiction works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would send us all back to live on the farms; or John Lukacs, who has become an environmentalist and is urging us all “to protect the landscape (and the cityscape) where [we] live.” A younger version of this is a former Reason magazine editor, Bill Kauffman, joining the reactionary chorus with his book, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists. Each of these advocates embraces just one of thousands of ways of living a good human life, favoring it above all the rest but for no discernible, rational reason one can identify. Indeed, judging by the approach these writers take against the rationalism of the Enlightenment—what with its insidious championing of a society that makes scientific and technological progress (including Darwin) possible—arguing for their model of the perfect human being is just not cool. Traditionalism, and of a highly selective kind, is how they go about supporting their one-size-fits-all conception of how all of us ought to live our lives.
I have nothing against those who prefer the farm life, or the life in the woods, or even deep in the halls of ivy. Let a million and more flowers bloom. That's individualism, not the silliness its enemies paint it.