The political divide can be dichotomized in multiple ways, one of these being individualism vs. collectivism.
With the rise of collectivism on both sides of the political spectrum, misconceptions of what individualism actually represents are becoming increasingly common. If we wish to preserve the rights of the individual, we must be aware of the misconceptions that others have and ensure that we fully understand individualism.
Individualism by Definition
Individualism, by definition, prioritizes the rights of the individual over the rights of the group. This does not mean that groups cannot exist, or that individuals with a common interest cannot voluntarily form groups to represent their values. It only means that the groups themselves do not have any rights, only the individuals within them.
Collectivism, on the other hand, holds the opposite perspective. Collectivism emphasizes value of the collective group over the individual. These groups are usually labeled as society, the general welfare, the people, and so on. Instead of arguing for individual rights, they argue for rights in the context of various groups, including workers rights, LGBTQ rights, black rights, women’s rights, etc. Individualists are not opposed to these rights, with the exception of the so-called “rights” that work in favor of one group at the expense of another group. Individualists would just categorize all of these together under the banner of human rights.
Individualism and Empathy
The most vocal proponent of individualism was novelist and Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand, especially as an opponent to collectivism (most of the top searches for this dichotomy are Objectivist sources).
Ayn Rand was very unapologetic in her defense of selfishness as a virtue. Her archetypal ideal characters, especially Howard Roark, were sometimes interpreted as lacking any sort of empathy and compassion (this is intended as a general statement, not as a critique of her characters). These characters, representing “the ideal man” as a strong individualist, likely played a role in creating the rumor that individualists lack empathy (although malice on the part of collectivists cannot be discounted).
Contrary to this rumor, empathy is a large part of individualism. While collectivists are concerned with the general welfare of the group they are defending, individualists have concern for the injustice of any human being. To defend the rights of “the little guy” (sometimes at the expense of the group) is to hold the principled position that each person, no matter what group they are part of, has inalienable rights that must be protected.
Individualism and Narcissism
One claim against individualism is to imply that to be an individualist is to be “self-centered” or narcissistic. This argument misses the point of individual rights. It’s not wrong to say that individualists are defending their own self-interest, but when doing this they are also defending the self-interest of every person around them (besides those that seek to control others).
Narcissists are not particularly suited to either individualism or collectivism. If a narcissist lives in a collectivist society, he will strive to become a politician. If he is able to do so, his will becomes synonymous with “the will of the people” and he is in an ideal position. If he is unable to become a politician (a much more likely option), he will be condemned to working for the “common good” of others for the rest of his life.
If a narcissist lives in an individualist society, he is free to live his own life, but will be unable to prosper unless he learns to empathize with others and acknowledge their rights as well as his own.
Individualism and Isolation
To be an individualist does not mean you must become a hermit and isolate yourself from the rest of society. It’s not ideologically inconsistent for an individualist to join a group that represents his interests. Individualists are not anti-collective, they are anti-collective rights.
This misconception comes from a pragmatic argument that a group is more powerful than an individual, therefore individualism can never hope to beat collectivism. While it’s true that collectivists can be better organized thanks to total dedication to group cohesion, individuals have nothing against forming groups to fight for a common interest.
In fact, Murray Rothbard once wrote that collectivism isolates people. As some collectivist ideologies become more concerned with enforcing equality of outcome, they begin removing every possible unique difference within human beings until each person is soulless and empty, leaving no possibility for association with one set of people that could leave out another set within the same collective group.
Nearly everyone can agree that we want what’s best for the greatest number of people. By fighting for individual rights over collective rights, we can defend everyone equally and guarantee that every single person has the most basic human rights.