Individualism and Freedom: Vital Pillars of True Communities
NOTE: A version of this essay was published in the October 2021 edition of When Free To Choose.
Individualism is the view that each person has moral significance and certain rights that are either of divine origin or inherent in human nature. Each individual exists, perceives, experiences, thinks, and acts in and through his own body and therefore from unique points in time and space. It is the individual who has the capacity for original and creative rationality. Individuals can interrelate, but thinking requires a specific, unique thinker. The individualist assumes responsibility for thinking for himself, for acting on his own thought, and for achieving his own happiness.
Freedom is the natural condition of the individual. From birth, each person has the potential to think his own thoughts and control his own energies in his efforts to act according to those thoughts. People can initiate their own purposive action when they are free from manmade restraints—when there is an absence of coercion by other individuals, groups of people, or the government. Freedom is not the ability to get what we desire. Non-manmade obstacles such as lack of ability, intelligence, or resources may result in the failure to attain one’s desires. Freedom means the absence of coercive constraints; however, it does not mean the absence of all constraints. It follows that freedom is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for happiness.
Individual happiness can be defined as the positive conscious emotional experience that accompanies or derives from the use of one’s human potentialities, including one’s talents, capabilities, and virtues. The sense of belonging to freely chosen communities is an important constituent of happiness.
Individualism denies that a community or a society has an existence apart from the individuals that constitute it. A community or society is a collection of individuals—it is not a concrete thing or living organism distinct from its members. To use an abstract term such as community or society is to refer to certain persons sharing particular characteristics and related in specifiable ways. There is no such thing as the general will, collective reason, or group welfare; there are only the will, reason, and welfare of each individual in a group. A community or a society is simply the association of persons for cooperative action. Coordinated group action is a function of the self-directed and self-initiated efforts of each person within the group.
Although the individual is metaphysically primary (and communities are secondary and derivative), communities are important because people need them to reach their potential for happiness. Social bonds are instrumentally valuable for the satisfaction of individuals’ non-social desires; affiliation is necessary for flourishing. A free political order, which respects natural rights and allows for individual freedom, best nourishes the formation of voluntary communities through which people choose to live according to their freely chosen common values.
Genuine Communities Are Freely Chosen Communities
Assigning primary emphasis to the individual does not devalue social cooperation. Humans are not only distinct individuals but also social beings. Cooperative action affords possibilities for growth and brings benefits that otherwise would be unattainable by isolated individuals. Man’s rationality allows him to cooperate and communicate with others. In a free society, all cooperative social ventures are entered voluntarily. In fact, individualism provides the best theoretical basis for a genuine community that is worthy of human life. Voluntary, mutually beneficial relations among autonomous individuals are essential for the attainment of authentic human communities. The uniqueness and worth of the person is affirmed when membership in a community is freely chosen by the individuals that comprise it.
Individualism and independence liberate interdependence. In the recent bestseller Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey observes that interdependence is a choice that only independent people can make. A positive, principle-centered, value-driven person who organizes and executes his life priorities with integrity is capable of building rich, enduring, and productive relationships with others. True independence of character enables a person to act rather than be acted upon. Independence of character requires him to integrate certain principles (virtues), such as integrity, courage, justice, honesty, and fairness, into his nature. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve even greater success and happiness. They are self-reliant and capable people who realize that more can be accomplished by working together than by working alone. Interdependent persons choose to share themselves with, learn from, understand, and love others, and therefore have access to the resources and potential of other people.
True Communities Respect the Primacy of Free Persons
Freedom, justice, virtue, dignity, and happiness all must be defined in terms of the individual; however, the pursuit of individual happiness will naturally and almost always occur in communities. People have needs as individuals that cannot be met except through cooperation with others—it is impossible to achieve human fulfillment in isolation. A true community respects free persons. Genuine communities arise when people are free to form voluntary associations to pursue their individual and mutual interests. Inherent in respect for persons is respect for the forms of association they choose for that purpose.
Individuals do not begin in a condition of isolation—to exist is to coexist. Birth, by nature, takes place within families including parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Those family members, in turn, have numerous memberships in a variety of communities and voluntary associations. In a free society, individuals tend to belong simultaneously to many different communities. To varying degrees, each person identifies with particular familial, religious, geographic, occupational, professional, employment, ethnic, racial, cultural, social, political, or other communities. These communities are usually, but not necessarily, local and severely limited in size by the number of people with whom an individual can have a personal acquaintance and relationship and share a recognizable common interest. Continuing technological advances in communications and transportation enhance people’s ability to select the communities that best meet their needs and aspirations.
Minimal Government Allows True Communities to Flourish
The bonding together of citizens into voluntary communities and associations enables them to remain independent of the state. Life in freely chosen communities is better for the person than life as a dissociated individual in a large nation-state. Skeptics of state power favor the placement of as many intermediate voluntary groups as possible between the state and the individual—these mediating institutions help individuals realize their objectives more freely and more completely. The principle of subsidiarity holds that the state should restrict its activities to those that individuals and private associations cannot effectively perform. Decisions are most wisely made by individuals and local organizations closest to the pertinent everyday realities, and by the next highest level only when the capabilities of actors at lower levels are exceeded. Subsidiarity allows free individuals to thrive in authentic communities without the intervention of the state.
The purpose of the state is not to help people either materially or spiritually to pursue their visions of happiness—that is the role of individuals, communities, and other voluntary associations. The proper function of the state is no more than to protect people in the pursuit of their own happiness. This simply means preventing interference from others.
Since active governments are inimical to the formation and operation of voluntary communities, the generation of such communities is facilitated by the minimal state—one that operates within the constraints of liberal individualism. Rich and rewarding personal relationships based on voluntary cooperation and mutual assistance abound within minimalist, rights-based systems. The freedom of individuals is a necessary condition for the formation and vitality of true communities.