Similar to many other ideological terms with a long history, individualism has several strands of thought that, while largely similar, have noticeable differences among its advocates. Individualism faces criticism from both the collectivist left and the traditionalist right for its alleged “atomization,” a criticism that has some validity with some self-identified individualists, but largely fails concerning the majority.
Individualism, under most definitions, prioritizes the individual over the group. It is usually (though not always, in the case of Mises) about the rights of the individual. Generally, it asserts that the group exists only as a collection of individuals.
The Existence of the Collective
Of course, groups do exist in a certain sense. Forests exist in the sense that they are not a single entity, but rather a collection of trees in an area. In the same sense, a community is not a single entity but rather a collection of individuals with social bonds to one another. These collectives are not entities themselves, but abstract concepts referring to a collection of entities.
Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote “There is no such thing as society” drew much criticism from both conservatives and left-liberals as an example of the “atomism” of individualism. But those who bother to look at the context will see Thatcher advocating that people stop looking to government for handouts and instead look to other individuals around them for aid. This so-called “atomistic individualism” was a defense of community and mutual aid, something the traditionalist right and collectivist left should appreciate rather than condemn.
The methodological individualism of Ludwig von Mises (explained in parts of Human Action and Epistemological Problems of Economics) deals with a slightly different problem. Neither side of the debate at the time denied the reality of individuals and the groups they exist within, but they did debate methodology. The collectivists argued that the individual cannot be seen outside the context of the group. Every man is a child of parents, a member of a nation, a religion, a race, and a culture. He is, whether he likes it or not, part of many groups that shape him as a person, and therefore any analysis of the individual must follow an analysis of the groups he is a part of.
The individualists argued the reverse. While an individual is shaped by the groups he is part of, only the individual can act. Actions are undertaken by individuals based on choices made by those same individuals, and these actions, combined with actions by other individuals, affect the group. The traits of a collective nation or religion are determined by the actions of each individual within that group. Therefore, the focus must be on individual action. Concerning the existence of these groups, Mises states in Human Action:
“It is uncontested that in the sphere of human action social entities have real existence. Nobody ventures to deny that nations, states, municipalities, parties, religious communities, are real factors determining the course of human events. Methodological individualism, far from contesting the significance of such collective wholes, considers it as one of its main tasks to describe and to analyze their becoming and their disappearing, their changing structures, and their operation. And it chooses the only method fitted to solve this problem satisfactorily.”
Examining Mises’s individualism, it can hardly be said to be “atomistic” in any sense. Mises never denies the reality of group influence, but simply argues that analysis of the individual is prior to analysis of the group, instead of the other way around.
The Individualism of Albert Jay Nock
The individualism of Albert Jay Nock (and by extension that of Frank Chodorov), unlike that of Mises, was not methodological but focused more on rights. In context, Nock was fighting against the rise of leftist collectivism during the American progressive era, when being a collectivist generally meant advocating for the individual’s submission to the state. These collectivists denied the existence of any sort of natural rights of the individual, and instead were positivists regarding any rights that a citizen of the state could claim. In this sense, Nock’s individualism is, like Thatcher’s, largely anti-state.
Nock was hardly an advocate of any sort of “atomized” individualism. To declare oneself an individualist in this tradition did not mean to atomize individuals from their local communities and society, but to assert the individual’s natural rights against the power of state bureaucracy. His critiques of the state were largely directed at its anti-social nature. The collectivist state had a monopoly on society. Bureaucrats wished to pull levers and push buttons to modify society in their desired manner, and Nock attacked this.
To defend individual rights was to defend the individuals that make up society against the all-consuming state. It was never about defending the individual against the community or the organic society. The individual is a part of society. A defense of individuals was, in essence, a defense of society against the state.
The Individualism of Ayn Rand
Rand’s individualism leans closest to the “atomist” caricature. Rand’s individualism, similar to that of Nock, essentially advocates for the self-actualization of the individual. But whereas Nock argues that the growth of the individual is the way to improve society, Rand argues that it is the rational thing to do in pursuit of one’s own happiness.
Rand’s ideal individualist is portrayed best through her characters Howard Roark (of The Fountainhead) and John Galt (of Atlas Shrugged). These characters have earned the reputation of being the “atomistic individuals” that the anti-individualists are concerned about. There is no noticeable influence from others. They have no culture, religion, or tradition. They are only free-thinking individuals. They make rational conclusions and act upon them.
It is here where Rand takes a step further than other individualists. While Mises fully accepted and never truly opposed the influence of culture or community on the individual, Rand prefers a truly “isolated” individual. He is not isolated in the sense that he ignores the rights of others or refuses to form friendships, but he is isolated in the sense that he is not affected by any custom, culture, or tradition. He is the pure rational man.
Where Rand deserves credit against the anti-individualists is her insistence on Objectivism as opposed to subjectivism. She is critical of those who rebel for the sake of rebellion. Whereas opponents argue that individualism sometimes denies any objective moral standard and upholds any individual choice as praiseworthy, Rand’s Objectivism is the furthest thing from this. Within her philosophy, the morally right choice is the pursuit of rational self interest.
Critics of “atomism” may have some valid concerns with the individualism of Ayn Rand, or a few self-described individualists that really do seem to oppose any sort of cultural norms. But for the majority of the individualist tradition, from Nock to Mises to Thatcher, individualism is not hostile to genuine community or social bonds, nor does it deny their influence. It merely advocates for the importance of the individual and individual rights.