Anarcho-capitalists argue that many facets of libertarianism are the natural chain of events when you remove the state from people’s lives. Free markets would definitely be abundant without a government injecting regulations and intervening in interests (although not necessarily capitalistically), but one aspect of libertarianism is not necessarily the default human condition: individualism.
With my new job in education, it’s becoming apparent to me that treating people as individuals is not something that comes naturally. Often, when a student is punished for misbehaving, they want to claim “that’s not fair” because they don’t want to be singled out as having broken a rule or not following an expectation. Basically, they don’t want to be recognized as individuals for their missteps.
This caused me to ponder the question of the natural tendencies of children towards collectivism and individualism. Based purely on observation, individualism seems to be something that requires more shaping than collectivism.
Truthfully, an individualist upbringing is not common throughout the world. Marcia Carteret, a senior instructor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, states in How Individualism and Collectivism Manifest in Child Rearing Practices that “In the majority of cultures in the world children learn to think of themselves as part of a ‘we’-group or in-group. Collectivist cultures actually downplay independence and promote dependence on a core group of people.”
Carteret goes on to explain how these cultures emphasize personal responsibility based upon potentially shaming the group for one’s actions. This is in direct contrast with parenting and discipline practices common in the United States, where children are groomed to take personal responsibility for things likes sleeping, toilet training and feeding.
Why children begin towards the collectivist side of the spectrum makes a lot of sense when you consider how much infants rely on their parents for nourishment and affection. This dependence can carry over into a child’s later years if the parents are not actively trying to raise him or her to be independent.
Jim Taylor, an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, describes children as either independent or contingent, meaning they are dependent on their parents or others for self-esteem and behavioral rewards. Contingent children can take the form of the “model child” who constantly wants approval from their parents, to those who are “highly dependent on their parents, in a paradoxical way” and do the opposite of what the parents instruct.
The four types of contingent children Taylor describes are common enough characteristics that most people could probably recall a child who has acted in any of these fashions. This does not necessarily demonstrate a predisposition for children to be collectivist, but it shows how easily a child can be pulled into a group or outside dependence.
Teenagers are even more demonstrative of collectivist tendencies than young children. A study conducted by University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found that young teenagers are influenced greatly by their peers when it comes to perceive risks. “[…] [O]nly the youngest teenagers were more strongly influenced by their peers. This suggests, the scientists say, that the years between childhood and adolescence may be a crucial period in the development of risk perception. Young teens are challenging the experience and authority of adults and looking instead to the other teens whose opinion they value,” states Wray Herbert of Psychology Today and Huffington Post.
While it is difficult to pinpoint whether a child truly tends to be collectivist or individualist, the science would suggest that it is quite easy for a child to fall into dependence on others for emotional reinforcement and decision-making.
That’s why I feel that individualism is not the default in society and it is something that must be taught and practiced. Personal responsibility and becoming an intrinsically motivated adult is much harder than relying on a unit for fulfilling these traits.
As libertarians, we must realize this and not fall into our own collectivist trap of assuming everyone would be individualist if not for x thing. To be an individual, one must be taught how to achieve it.
* Luke Henderson is a composer, economics enthusiast and educator in St. Louis, MO. He is a budding Libertarian, joining the party in 2016, and has contributed to Being Libertarian and The Libertarian Vindicator, in addition to being an editor for the Libertarian Coalition.