On Individualism

May/​June 2015 • Policy Report

Individualism is one of the least understood ideas in social and political thought. “In this society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the natural bonds,” Karl Marx wrote in the 19th century, “which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate.” Perhaps ironically, this idea that individualism leads to a destructive social atomism is a key element of many popular conservative complaints, as well.

In the first release of a new series published by Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, Individualism: A Reader provides a wealth of illuminating essays from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. Edited by scholars George H. Smith and Marilyn Moore, individualism is explained and defended throughout various selections from 25 different writers, offering insightful, and sometimes unusual, perspectives. The collection includes not only selections from well‐​known writers — such as John Stuart Mill and Oscar Wilde — but also many lesser‐​known pieces. Henry Wilson, a somewhat obscure lieutenant colonel in the British army, touches on the uselessness of vice legislation in an article on the moral double standard seen in the assessments of different economic classes.

“A number of our selections have never appeared in previous anthologies,” Smith writes in the preface. “Therefore, even readers familiar with the literature on individualism will probably find something new.”

The depth and complexity of ideas about individualism are reflected in the six sections of this collection. The first examines individuality generally, with the following five detailing social, moral, political, religious, and economic individualism. Throughout, individualism is analyzed and defended through the various lenses of philosophers, social theorists, and economists.

Is individualism the ability to act independently amidst a web of social forces? A vital element of personal liberty and a shield against conformity? Does it lead to or away from unifying individuals with communities? Both richly historical and sharply contemporary, Individualism: A Readerprovides a multitude of perspectives and insights on personal liberty and the history of freedom.

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