On Restoring American Individualism
The following, originally published at American Thinker in 2012, was my attempt to offer a synoptic account of the intellectual grounding of modern constitutional republicanism — i.e., political freedom — and of how that grounding is undermined by progressivism. This essay is assigned annually in a required discussion course taught at University of Missouri, where I suppose it has made hundreds of young minds feel “unsafe.” So I thought, “Hey, why don’t I violate your identity with it here in Limbo, too?”
On Restoring American Individualism
(Originally published March 24th, 2012)
Much of the political crisis facing America today stems from a disintegration of the ethical basis of the free society. That is why the core of the 2012 election fight is not tax rates, job growth, or the national debt. These issues, though of enormous practical importance, are merely the policy manifestations of underlying moral sentiments. The fundamental battle to be waged concerns nothing less than the nature of man, and the moral implications of that nature. If public disapproval of particular Obama policies is to become a lasting movement toward societal renewal, then the conservative’s primary objective must be the restoration of American individualism.
The problem is that the warm quilt of entitlement and dependency which the Left has so cozily tucked around American society not only restricts freedom of movement; it also effectively reinforces the anti-individualist morality that makes the Left’s advances possible. In the doublethink names of “fairness” and “security,” soft despotism of the modern leftist sort produces a siren song promise of carefree mother’s love forever — with its corresponding appeal to a toddler’s moral myopia, the inability to concretize and respect the wishes and wills of other people. Thus, creeping socialism issues in a hitherto unknown ethic, which we might dub “collectivist self-absorption.”
“We Are the World” and “We are the 99 percent” are both products of this ethic, expressed as, respectively, self-aggrandizing “brotherly love” and self-aggrandizing slothful covetousness. In both cases, the heart of the message is, “We are one; give us what we want.” This sensibility is the very meaning of the “entitlement mentality” with which the Left seeks to charm America into moral and intellectual submission. The constitutionalist is therefore saddled with the thankless task of serving up the repeated splashes of cold water that might prevent the cozily blanketed moral invalid from drifting into the long, nightmarish sleep of collectivist authoritarianism.
The most indispensable resource in this struggle to renew the individualist ethic is a clear understanding of the moral terms of the argument, and a refusal to allow those terms to be redefined by the authoritarians.
Theoretically, “individualism” is a relatively recent concept. This is not to say that it expresses a new idea, but rather that as a historically significant notion it was born of modern philosophical debates. In short, as nineteenth century liberal democracy came under attack from those who rejected natural rights and the politico-economic freedom those rights demand, both freedom’s critics and its defenders saw fit to introduce a term that might encompass the crux of the ethical dispute. That term, “individualism,” was born, therefore, of a need to explain the moral assumptions of liberty.
Individualism does not mean “selfishness,” “greed,” a reticence to work with others, or even a denial of the interconnectedness of humans and their fates. These misrepresentations are the products of leftist materialism’s populist efforts to undermine faith in freedom, by aligning freedom with amoral and anti-human inclinations.
At its base, individualism — or, as its detractors since John Dewey have renamed it, “classical individualism” — is simply the presupposition that fundamentally discrete human beings do, in fact, exist. Absurdly obvious as that may sound, this presupposition is precisely what modern leftism is calling into question — not just implicitly, but quite directly.
Late modern philosophy has rejected outright the common sense awareness, which was elevated to metaphysical theory by Aristotle, that individual existents are the basic facts of material reality. This notion applies, of course, to the category of man as to all else. From this accepted principle — that the building blocks of human civilization are particular humans, who exist in logical priority to any community or social arrangement — gradually arose the theoretical edifice of political freedom.
From the classical understanding of the individuated human mind as the essence of man, through the Christian development of the notion of individual moral will, philosophy at last turned, under the influence of modern empirical science, to the attempt to understand man’s practical (i.e. moral) essence with a view to determining the most natural social arrangement. This latter effort issued in the concept of natural rights — moral constraints on men’s behavior towards one another, grounded in the empirical understanding that the primary natural objective of each man is the preservation and progress of his own life, and hence that each man’s range of moral authority both limits, and is limited by, every other individual’s primary natural objective of preserving and promoting his own life.
The coinage of a uniquely “American individualism” stems from the fact that America was the first nation grounded explicitly in the most concrete and practical conception of this modern notion of natural rights. Thus, America was a political community that, in its very founding, expressly rejected the hitherto generally accepted premise that the leaders of communities may, and should, determine the purposes and limits of human action. By directly embedding the theory of natural rights — understood as a moral fence around each individual — into its basic law and its conception of government, the United States became the first nation founded on the premise that men are by nature free, and therefore that the purpose of government is, and must be, only the protection of that natural freedom.
Prior to the developments described above, “individualism” was not part of the philosophical vernacular, simply because the logical primacy of individuals — the belief in the existence of individual human beings — was the given in all theories of human experience. The concept became historically relevant precisely as a means of explaining the American ethic. America translated the Aristotelian “metaphysical” primacy of individuals into socio-political reality. Government may not, constitutionally, encroach upon natural liberty. The law of the land, unlike the laws of all other lands, is first and foremost a set of clear moral restrictions on government, in favor of individual citizens.
The American, then, is the only citizen on the planet who is — in a manner that is more than an abstraction — functionally superior in political status to his “government.” The American head of state — unlike all equivalent leaders throughout the world — is not the “head” of the society (in traditional “body politic” fashion). American government is merely an instrument of the citizens, their tool, assigned a specific set of tasks, with the explicit proviso that it may and should be disbanded if it ceases to perform those tasks within its defined limits.
From this unique political achievement — genuine practical freedom — grows a unique moral sense. The American, related to his government in a manner that inverts the normal political relationship, duly sees himself differently. His non-subjecthood, if you will, produces a heightened sense of personal responsibility — of having no (moral) choice but to “do it himself” — from which is born the virtue of forward-looking self-reliance that is almost definitive of the American soul. This virtue is the core of the notion of “American individualism”: it is in part the source, and in part the moral outgrowth, of the translation of a metaphysical premise, the primacy of individuals, into a political system, rights-based constitutional republicanism.
What came to be called “individualism” can be found in the citizens of other nations, of course; however, it exists as an apolitical principle, in the sense that only in America is individualism consistent with the duties of citizenship. The individualists of other nations, then, may be called “spiritual Americans.”
Those who wish to subvert the American republic, and to undermine its founding documents, have always understood that the primary obstacle is ethical individualism. And this, if one wishes to dig up America from its roots, requires an attack on the metaphysical presumption of the primacy of individual beings. Dewey, America’s friendly face of socialism, shoved the spade in deep. Seeing that individualism was the source of natural rights, he sought to dissolve this nexus by undermining the metaphysical presupposition of discrete individuals.
For Dewey, the father of twentieth century American public education, the individual as the given — as an entity complete unto itself — is the fallacy at the heart of all previous philosophy. Individual human beings, i.e. individuated minds, do not exist. Rather, individuals are created through social and educational influences. Thus, the theory of natural rights, which presumes the logical priority of individual men, is destroyed. Where there are no individuals, there can be no individual rights. Dewey, and others following him, expanded upon the European socialist theories that reject individual human nature, instead regarding historical social conditions as the fundamental realities. Community is prior to the individual; the latter is merely the product of the former. “It takes a village,” to state this in one of its well-known contemporary manifestations.
Dewey and his collectivist allies take this metaphysical reversal one step further, arguing that a society based on the “myth” of natural rights — i.e. America — actually prevents the development of true “individuals.” The laws and liberties of such a society are, for Dewey, antithetical to the growth of the genuine individual, who is progressive and creative in devising new forms of community. Here is a typical outline of the view, from Chapter 22 of Dewey’s Democracy and Education:
Not but that there have always been individual diversities, but that a society dominated by conservative custom represses them or at least does not utilize them and promote them…. Regarding freedom, the important thing to bear in mind is that it designates a mental attitude rather than external unconstraint of movements, but that this quality of mind cannot develop without a fair leeway of movements in exploration, experimentation, application, etc…. A progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth. Hence a democratic society must, in consistency with its ideal, allow for intellectual freedom and the play of diverse gifts and interests in its educational measures.
Since “classical individualism” is based on a pre-societal notion of man, it tends toward the promotion of practical freedom, ultimately through natural rights. By redefining freedom as “a mental attitude rather than external unconstraint of movements” — as creative “individuality” rather than political liberty — and by regarding the preservation of liberty through law and custom as a “repression” of genuine individualism, the leftist turns freedom on its head. Freedom now means unconstraint in the “experimentation” and “application” of one’s “gifts” to promote the “growth” of the “progressive society.”
On this model, Thomas Jefferson is a repressor of individualism; William Ayers is a true individual. This leftist reversal of the moral concepts of individualism and freedom is explicitly grounded in a profound, and profoundly stupid, metaphysical reversal: the proposal that society is prior to the individual, that the individual is a product and instrument of the collective.
Do not be fooled by the modern, Dewey-inspired smokescreen composed of popular lingo such as “individuality” and “being an individual.” These groundless notions are the harbingers of the most fundamentally anti-individualist philosophy ever devised.
The struggle facing America and the world over the coming generations is nothing less than a battle between individualism and collectivism. Do you exist as a unique, rational being, independently of any community? Or are you merely an amorphous blob of nothing, to be shaped by your society, and a “free individual” only in so far as you are “creatively” serving the growth of the progressive community that made you? In political terms, are you, by nature, the master of your “government,” or is it, by nature, your master?
Compared to the task of restoring genuine individualism, paying down the national debt will be a walk in the park. However, without ultimate success in this task, all other efforts to save America from the abyss will be futile. The imposed moral infantilism of progressive collectivism must give way at last to the self-reliant adulthood that is man’s birthright. “We Are the World” must give way to “I am in the world — and I have a right to be here.”