The virtuosity of individualism

Conventional wisdom dictates that individualism is a destructive force which has enraptured and degraded our society. According to leftist orthodoxy it manifested itself in our culture with Thatcherism and rampant consumerism and has infected the “selfish” millennial generation, the only explanation for their worrying right-wing tendencies.

Conventional wisdom is, as is so often the case, quite wrong. I do not recognise this warped image of individualism and contrarily believe that Britain is sadly lacking in this most noble of traits.

The free expression of individual thought and the exercise of individual autonomy is extremely weak in our society. The eccentric, independent minded and assertive individual was once a celebrated part of British culture. The strong willed and fearless individual with a protective barrier of self reliance is resistant to group think and, for me, characterises what individualism is all about.

Now such a trait is attacked from all directions and individualism is repressed and tamed. Society is intolerant of eccentric thoughts that stray too far from conventional wisdom. “You can’t say that” has so rapidly become “you can’t think that”, and now whenever anyone expresses an opinion that goes beyond whatever the sheep are currently bleating a reaction of outrage, bewilderment or total misunderstanding is positively expected.

Autonomy, as exercised by the individual, or the self-reliant family, or the tight-knit community, is increasingly cowed by the state which aggressively cultivates a relationship of dependence.

Individualism is a much criticised and misrepresented principle. Elements of the right dislike it because they see it as a manifestation of selfishness and irresponsibility. Not only is this based on an oversimplified definition, it is wrong because individualism allows us to achieve moral awareness. As we learn from our own experiences, and make our own choices, we become well rounded individuals with a greater sense of ourselves and our responsibilities.

“He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.” – J.S Mill

Outside influences shape us as people, but it is the exercise of autonomy and the making of our own choices that hones our judgement and helps us to become responsible moral agents.


Yes. Be this guy.

The whole idea of individualism is a total anathema to the left because they believe it undermines solidarity and violates communitarianism. A central tenet of Communism, Socialism and Fascism is that the state has primacy over the individual whose interest must be sacrificed for (what the state, or the dictator, deem to be) the common good. In a collectivist society the central authority must be endowed with the power to control social life in order to subordinate the individual and centrally plan the economy. The state considers itself the embodiment of the nation and the people are bound to it, and each other, through involuntary obligation. This leads inevitably to the violation of the individual’s liberty, property and right to the pursuit one’s own goals.

Over-reliance on a distant, monolithic and (supposedly but never actually) morally neutral provider is not conducive to the self-reliance of individuals, families or communities. It undermines the impulse to voluntarily fulfil our relational obligations i.e. the obligations to those around you – family members, neighbours, communities etc.

Critics of individualism argue that dependence is natural and desirable and they portray individualism as an atomisation of society into a Darwinist rat race between competing selfish individual entities. This is nothing more than a leftist caricature, a mythical extremist individualism exemplified by the selectively edited quote from Margaret Thatcher “there’s no such thing as society”.

In response to this straw man argument I would contend that there is an essential difference between the natural and essential interdependence of human beings (which is in no way denied or eroded by individualism) and the dependence on a distant, impersonal central authority.

Interdependence between human beings on a personal level fosters the bonds of family, friends, neighbours and community. It instils self-reliance, personal responsibility, self-restraint, dignity and an independence from government that essentially undermines its authority.

In contrast, dependence on the state provides for our needs without obligation (except financial) and without connecting us to our local networks, thus it actually breaks down relational obligations. It weakens the family and it weakens the community thus the interdependence of human beings on a personal level is severely undermined. This position is constantly undermined by the perpetuation of the aformentioned misquote of Margaret Thatcher. Now is an appropriate time to reveal the full quotation:

There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

This has rather a different meaning than that which the left falsely attribute to her. It is not saying that there is no society per se, but is conveying the individualist’s society defined by personal responsibility, family, obligation and voluntary association. It is the antithesis to the collectivist society as embodied by the state, the destroyer of personal responsibility.

Dependence without obligation is corrosive because it gives the illusion of independence from our fellow citizens and weakens our sense of obligation to each other. It fosters the attitude of those who have no moral qualms about cheating the welfare system or shunning work because they see it as an entitlement and justify their actions by believing they are only cheating a faceless, distant authority rather than their fellow citizens.

It is desirable that everyone has enough to eat, somewhere to live and a job to do because this makes for a fair, happy and prosperous society. Dependence on the state turns what is a societal issue of human decency and compassion into a “right” to various “benefits”. It fosters a sense of entitlement and has a pernicious effect on the soul; the response to the granting of such “rights” is generally resentment and demoralisation rather than gratitude. It is not seen as the generosity of the collective but an entitlement handed down by a paternal state that renders them subordinate.

Dependence without obligation, for example, leads to the shameless dropping of litter or fly tipping because those doing it know, and expect, that the council will clear up after them. It leads to the attitude of those who see a street in their neighbourhood besmirched with litter and take no action except complaining that the council really ought to do something. Before you know it, the entire neighbourhood is filthy with litter, and then covered in graffiti, before gradually degrading into squalor. All the while the residents wait for someone else to do something about it.

It weakens associational life; that realm of voluntary institutions established by citizens independently of the state that make up an essential part of “civil society”. The death of civil society would need a nationalised sector to replace it, but it can only ever be a soulless, bureaucratic shadow of a true voluntary sector.

In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville imagines a world in which this element of society has been killed off. It is a depiction of a society infantilised and divided by dependence:

“Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind […] Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood.”

The leftist resentment of individualism and their utopian approach to achieving solidarity and equality is hypocritical and false. It leads to a type of equality in which we are equally dependent on the state as a provider. It breaks apart groups of people – family and communities – because they are freed from obligations to each other, and creates individuals who are equal only in their dependence on the state as provider.

So, contrary to the belief that this is an alternative to individualism and a means of creating social solidarity, what it actually does is uses the powerful force of the state to atomise society.

This is the collectivist’s morally neutralising and truly destructive form of individualism that is created as an accidental consequence of their utopian folly. The repression of individualism and the cowing of people into compliant dependents coerced by the “benevolent” state into certain behaviours creates only artificial cohesion. Individual autonomy is far more nurturing of social mindfulness and virtuosity and creates stronger, and naturally occurring, social bonds.

A people who become over reliant on the state are meek, weak, and easy to manipulate and oppress. In a society with a herd mentality, where the individual does not matter, groupthink prevails and free thought dies.

Britain is becoming a conformist society and we are expected to submit to and celebrate that conformity. In a free, individualist society the virtues of self-reliance, independence of thought, individuality and creativity are allowed to thrive. Social solidarity is not forced from above but occurs naturally, not as embodied by the state, but through an organic common culture and shared heritage.

Think for yourself, don’t accept the demonisation of a virtuous personal and societal trait.

Video: Steve Davies’ History of Individualism

The brief summary below is derived from the above video of the inaugural Counting House lecture by Stephen Davies.

The civil war undermines and blasts apart political and spiritual authority, and a radical movement develops. By the end of the first part of the war in 1646 Richard Overton is imprisoned at Newgate from where he fires his Arrow Against All Tyrants, effectively a libertarian pamphlet. Notably it is a property rights respecting right-wing form of individualism, not an anarcho-communist screed as might be expected for a “Leveller” as Overton was falsely described.

The Levellers’ Agreement of the People (the third version in particular published 1 May 1649) was a draft constitution for England that sketched out a radically minimal system of Government. The third draft contained compromises, though they did inititially extend the offer of liberty to catholics and the Irish. The document delegated broad powers to the state, but carved out a long list of very extensive exceptions that the state did not have power over, for example, all commerce. The document was not adopted as the constitution of England (an enormously significant decision) and the tradition went underground through the 1700s.

First, by the time of the 1688 Glorious Revolution a new Ancien Regime was established. A highly religious oligarchy, authoritarian, and corrupted by self-serving laws. Offices of State are bought and sold as commododities, slavery is openly supported as a mutually beneficial moral good, and the function of the state is, and is seen to be, and is accepted to be, the maintenance of the true religion (Anglicanism). It is (still) common for religious minorities to be excluded from public life.

During that century the Commonwealth Men targetted the Ancien Regime. The movement was associated with religious minorities, Congregationalists and Unitarians (more on them later) and on the American Colonies, and twards the end of the centrury and into the 1800s a new self aware “freedom movement” develops to reform the law and social norms of the country. They were not conservatives and would not have agreed that liberty had existed, apart from perhaps in fairytales from the times of the (already ancient) Saxons or as far back as Troy. Bentham comes into play with a individualist hedonic psychology. The success of this movement was enormous. The confessional state was largely dismantled, although leaving the present monarchy. Catholics were emanicipated (and in Ireland permitted to ride horses, carry weapons, and own land), and so were minority protestants. That assumption about the role of the state was underminded. The slave trade was abolished in 1806 then slavery itself in 1832.

Total Ideological Victory

Let’s be clear about how enormous those achievements were. Modern libertarians want to make a fundamental change to the role of the state in this country. The dismantlement of the confessional state, consisting of a reduction in the power of the Anglican church; and the emancipation of minority religions represented just such a change.

Modern libertarians must fight entrenched interests with massive incentives to preserve the status-quo. Public choice theory says this is difficult or impossible, but the abolition of slavery also flies in the face of public choice theory.

I find it enormously encouraging to hear that the challenges we face today have been overcome by past generations with similar views to our own. In the case of slavery, a total ideological victory was won. The moral assessment of slavery was that it was good for those enslaved and was divinely sanctioned. Ten people in a pub totally changed that view to the extent that nobody would now knowingly endorse slavery, and must now conceal their views beneath the soluable veneer of “redistribution”.

Somewhat to the contrary, Stephen also talks about how interlinked the various campaigns are. The network of groups fighting slavery, religious freedom, militarism and imperialism, fighting for free-trade, against the poor-laws, in favour of women’s rights, parliamentary reform and peace all shared a basic individualist analysis. They had a common individualist philosophy, a shared view of government policy and a drive to preserve and expand personal autonomy. They also shared members in common, and together acheived successes in many of the areas mentioned above.


There is, Stephen says, a popular libertarian narrative that there was a tradition of liberty that had established itself spontaneously in Britain and which was undermined by the Benthamites. Stephen did not refer to Hayek specifically but here is a quote in that vein from Ch. 4 of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty:

The two traditions [of institutional design vs empirical observation and evolution] became finally confused when they merged in the liberal movement of the nineteenth century and when even leading British liberals drew as much on the French as on the British [evolutionary] tradition. It was in the end, the victory of the Benthamite Philosophical Radicals over the Whigs in England that concealed the fundamental difference which in more recent years has reappeared as the conflict between liberal democracy and “social” or totalitarian democracy.

Stephen appears to call this “nonsense” because the individualists of this period had in fact acheived many victories against the Church and local oligarchy and also believed that threats to personal autonomy come not just from politics but also from church, “strong local communities” and even oppressive public opinion. Stephen suggests that if you do not also reject those sources of coercion you cannot call yourself an individualist, but only a libertarian, in doing so Stephen appeared to make a distinction between cultural and political coercion and to reward an additional positive label to those that opposed both, and it is the folks with this broader label that are mentioned in the title of his talk.


Stephen pauses to consider one Manchester based victory that demonstrated the benefits of intransigence. Rejecting compromises and promises the movement for the repeal of the Corn Laws, the largest movement ever seen, succeeded in getting their repeal and rendering protectionist policies unpopular for 100 years, especially in the Labour Party. Interestingly free-trade (if not free-markets in a general sense) still enjoys majority support. Also, it was noted, that because protectionist tariffs were a major source of revenue this campaign also completely changed how tax is collected and used, another goal of modern libertarians.

Peak and Collapse

Later, in the second half of the 19th century (~1850 onwards) there is a revival of imperialism, militarism, jolly heroic wars and also the rise of the collectivist movements. This latter group claimed the modern state would offer liberty to the people through the means of “collective liberty” (!). In response however, from 1870-1905 the self-aware individualism reaches a peak. Institutions are formed and individualist thinkers were widely read, and the individualist bourbon democrats in the US were strong. Then, suddenly, from 1914 the strong and self-aware individualist movement collapses. They had failed to recruit a new generation of activists and the individualist focus had narrowed to free-market economics.

Recent times

From the 1920 more and more people switch focus to economic liberty in this way. Stephen argues, rightly in my view, that this is misjudged for the specific reason that free-market economics is a consequence of the individualist and small governement analysis. Favouring a small state and personal autonomy due to a preference in free-markets is arguing in the wrong direction. It isn’t wrong, but you are holding the the picture upside down. I would only add that one needs to consider an individualist analysis of ethics as well.

In the middle of the century institutions form to fight the good fight against the welfare state and in favour of economic liberty. He discusses Ernest Benn as one of the heroes and founder of the Society of Individualists, and a rare example of someone who fought on non-economic issues. Overall, however the war for economic liberty has been gradually lost. State spending rose from 12% in 1900, down to 10% in 1910, up to 43% and now 52%, a catastropic loss only momentarily halted by Thatcher.

However, there have been improvements in personal agency. This is especially true for females, who’s rights and recognition have obviously grown but is true to some extent for everybody, though not as a policy and only as an accident of rapid economic growth. This growth means that now the 48% of your money you are permitted to control is actually much larger than the 90% you were permitted to keep in 1910. I can’t help wondering if this is a clue as to why the collectivists have gotten away with so many morally corrupt and destructive policies.

The future

To conclude Stephen points out that fundamental re-alignments in politics happen every 40 to 50 years, so we are due for a big one. Through the last 50 years the political argument has been one between economically authoritarian liberals and economically liberal conservatives, and this has carried on without the presence of a significant self-aware movement fighting consistently for liberty. Therefore, it seems likely that a self-aware group of consistent liberals will come to a confrontation with consistent authoritarians, of the smoking banning, internet censoring, journalist detaining sort. This is a clear battle between good and evil with blue water between the two. It is also a good clean fight that we can look forward to, without the confusion of tribal inconsistency; but the most encouraging thing about Stephen’s talk was hearing that similar battles have been won before and several times over and by people a lot like us.

Monday speaker: Steve Davies, PhD

For some “individualism” is a dirty word, an intellectual excuse for greed; for others it is the intellectual tradition that ended the slave trade and is the key to freedom in our time. Which is it? On Monday Historian Steve Davies will relay the history of this tradition; chart its waxing and waning popularity, and its course for the future.

A graduate of St Andrews University in Scotland – the Masters’ class of  1976 – he wrote a thesis on the Law and order in Stirlingshire as it applied between 1637 and 1747 for which he earned his PhD in 1984. While at St Andrews, you won’t be surprised to learn, he was a member of the Conservative Association, the Jeffersonian Association and the History Society.

By 1991 he had co-authored “A Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought“, meaning he literally wrote the book on Monday’s topic. In 2003 he wrote a second book on “Empiricism and History” a defence of the empirical method as compared to other methods such as post-modernism. (those two links are commission-bearing).

His academic career bridged the Atlantic with positions at Bowling Green State University, Ohio doing Social Philosophy and Policy; and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. At Manchester he taught of variety of things appropriate for a History lecturer including the history of “Utopian and millenarian thought” and the history of the Devil. He then joined the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University in Virginia where Stephen ran seminars and outreach networks before leaving to work as Education Director for the Institute of Economic Affiars. For the IEA he helps to organise the popular Freedom Week which, like some unnamed meetings above a pub, was listed in a recent Economist article as one of the signs libertarianism is on the rise. I think it is at least true that that rise is a credit to Dr Davies, amongst others.

Steve’s talk will, therefore, be nothing if not educational. I am greatly looking forward to hearing it.

Woolwich murderer cited Koran

Perhaps I am slow to pick up on this, but I find it interesting that the first sentence of this video did not get broadcast.

There are many, many ayah throughout the Koran [referring to religious verses] that says we must fight them as they fight us, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I apologize that women had to witness this today but in our land women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don’t care about you.”

That text in bold, sourced from LiveLeak is new to me.

Before reading that, I had come to conclusion, like Jonathan Pearce that the murder was effectively tribal , though the “tribe” consisted of international muslims. Of course, it might still have been primarily tribal (“as they fight us” points in that direction) and rationalised as a Koranic obligation (if “rationalised” can apply to a religious justification) but it does muddy the waters greatly.

JP wrote, and where I had thought that he’d nailed it was this:

There are many reasons how this state of affairs came about, and I am sure commenters have their views on this. I would point to what has happened in our own education system and the climate of ideas in the West for the past few decades. While Western society is, by some measures, more “individualistic” than it used to be – and that is a good thing – in some ways tribal mentalities remain strong. Maybe part of that has to do with post-modernism and the whole challenge to the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth, and that there are universal, shared qualities that all humans have, most importantly, the capacity for long-term, rational action, coupled with notions of taking responsibility for one’s actions, linked as that is to the idea that humans have free will.

I would very much like to belive that no religion is fundamentally violent, I find the idea depressing, but this is a great challenge to that sentiment. Do I now need to read the Koran for myself? I suppose I should.