As the crowds cheered and waved approval in Chicago and elsewhere in the world at the re-election of President Obama, I was taken by a sentence given by our President in his acceptance speech. It went like this: “We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions…”
This led me to think about what individualism is and what it has accomplished through the ambitions of many. I immediately thought of the individual efforts of men like Henry Ford and the car or Edison whose many inventions changed the world. Yet, there are individuals who worked tirelessly in their homes or laboratories to change society for the better. They did it without the government or state telling them to do so. In some cases, they probably did not know what their individual efforts would do for the world. Consider the following names, that you may have never heard of but your life is different today because of them:
- Emst Alexanderson…the radio
- Luis Alvarez… the windshield wiper
- Robert Adler…TV remote
- Thomas Amat….Movie projector
- John Bardeen ….transistor
- Forest Bird….Respirator
- Laszlo Biro….ball point pen
- Samuel Blum….LASIK eye surgery
- Nills Bohlin….safety belt
- Willis Carrier…air conditioning
- Andrew Moyer ….penicillin
I can go on and on….and will write later about some of these people. Yes, it took cooperation with others to see these ideas come to their final results, conclusions and development, but what would the world be today without the individuals who first had the idea….and the ambition? What about the fore-runners to the computer age who first worked out of their garages?
First we may want to look at what those in history had to say on the subject of individualism. This would include those, like Karl Marx, who believed the masses can be controlled and individualism has little place in a social society. There are those, like John Mill, who believed that society is made better by individual thought.
“The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed an emerging role for the individual that culminated in the appearance of the language of individualism. One strand in the intensified interest in the individual was the rise of capitalism as an economic system that emphasized the individual both as the holder of self-interest and as the foundation of all legal rights. Perhaps the most famous early advocate of economic individualism was Adam Smith (1723–1790). Although Smith is sometimes labeled the first great economist of capitalism, he preferred to describe his system in terms of “natural liberty,” arguing that the welfare of society is best served when every individual seeks his or her own advantage without reference to any overarching scheme of goodness or justice. When individuals are left to their own devices, Smith held, the ensuing system possesses an inherently self-adjusting quality that will ensure the maximum satisfaction of individual desires.
The apotheosis of individualism may be found in the utilitarian doctrine, formulated most clearly by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), that social policy should promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea rested on the principle that all individual estimations of utility deserve equal treatment and respect in comparison with all others. Hence, no person could claim that his or her calculation of happiness counted for any more or less than another’s. A truly democratic society should treat the wishes and desires of each of its individual members with the same dignity, without regard for moral judgments concerning the content of those aims. Bentham elaborates the basic insight of Smith to cover the full range of political and social programs and institutions.
Although liberalism could seem to take individualism for granted, the extreme egalitarianism of the utilitarian position, coupled with the events of the French Revolution (1789–1799), made many thinkers (including those of a liberal stripe) nervous. Edmund Burke (1729–1797) was concerned that the spread of democratic equality and the breakdown of the organic social order would lead to the fragmentation of persons into atomized individuals lacking any sense of identity or place. He scorned the individual’s “private stock of reason” in comparison with the wisdom of history, fearing that the glorification of individuality presaged the crumbling of regard for the tradition-bearers of social authority, such as the monarchy, the nobility, and the church. Under such circumstances, Burke predicted (presciently, as it turns out) that authoritarian forms of government would step into the breach and provide an artificial identity for individuals as a remedy for their extreme alienation.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) wrote about individualism. Although Marx is commonly regarded as a holistic social thinker, he in fact repeatedly asserted that individual self-realization was the standard against which social relations should be judged. In his early writings, he condemned capitalism for the alienating and dehumanizing impact that it exercised on individual workers, while in the Communist Manifesto (1848), he called for a system of equitable distribution of the fruits of labor on the grounds that the precondition of the liberty of each is the liberty of all.” (One might call this the “Robin Hood theory” of taking from the rich to give to the poor.)
In the ’90s, I was in the former Soviet Union and saw first hand the results of Karl Marx’s theory about individualism and society. Every few feet along the road, there was a ramp on which to drive up your car in order to fix it because there were so many unfit cars on the road. I also road behind a dump truck taking grain to the market. The grain was flying out of the truck onto the road. I ask my driver, ” Why do they not cover it?” He explained to me that it does not matter how much is in the truck…just that the truck delivers something . The hard work of the individual who grew the grain and the amount delivered was not taken into consideration. Socialized medicine was a part of the society and doctors, who were skilled, were not rewarded financially for this skill. A cab driver could make more money than a doctor. Individual skill in this case did not seem to matter. The individual efforts or training of the individual were not part of how the society thinks. The masses had been trained well. One would ask then, why would a person study years to become a doctor when they could learn to drive a cab and be paid even more. Of course, we know that the former Soviet Union fell apart economically. I would say that common sense tells us that individual ambitions are important and we are not greater when we set aside this gift of individual effort. Perhaps John Stuart Mill thoughts on individualism says it best.)
“John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) shared some elements of nineteenth-century skepticism about mass democratic society, but his writings crystallized the understanding of individualism still widely shared in Western societies. According to Mill’s important essay “On Liberty” (1859), the interests of humanity are “progressive,” in the Enlightenment sense that human beings seek material and moral improvement. Mill holds that the societies that are most likely to promote this goal—societies that he terms “civilized”—share the common factor of defending and promoting individual liberty. Individualism—understood as experimentation with lifestyles and ideas—challenges uncritically received sureties and broadens the basis of human knowledge. Borrowing from Tocqueville, Mill admits that democratic society contains the potential to dampen or even forbid many expressions of personal liberty that stand at odds with mass tastes or beliefs. In contrast to Tocqueville, however, Mill maintains that individualism stands on the side of liberty, not equality. A free society supports individualism.”