Lawrence W. Reed – December 15, 2019
If it’s a coincidence that “individual” begins with a letter that’s also a closely associated word, it’s a happy one indeed. Individual and I are inseparable. “I” is the pronoun used to refer to oneself as the speaker, writer, thinker, or actor. Without exception, “I” is an individual, not a group or a collective of any sort.
This fact is worth endless celebration. For the profound truth it represents, we should be thankful every waking moment of our lives. I rejoice that I’m not a replica, an appendage, or a cog. Like each and every one of you reading this, I’m a completely specific, utterly unique, self-winding, and inner-motivated one-of-a-kind. No other human in our planet’s history was or is exactly like me or precisely like you, either. I’m not someone’s robot. I will resist efforts to program me or collectivize me into something I’m not. If ever you catch me trying to program or collectivize you, blow the whistle so I come to my senses.
I’m appalled at the ease with which some people speak of their fellow citizens as though they are liquids to be homogenized or tools to be manipulated — not by request but by the force of political power. It’s all for the nebulous collective good, they assure us, but for some reason they are willing to do us harm to achieve it.
A Yearning for Independence
In keeping with my individuality, I seek to be as independent and self-reliant — a burden to no one — as my abilities allow. I will speak for myself and gladly accept responsibility for my actions. And I have rights, the only kind of rights that make any sense: individual rights. I will never willingly forfeit them by jumping into a communal blender for the sake of some abstraction called “society.”
This makes me an enthusiastic and unabashed proponent of individualism and as fierce an opponent of collectivism as you’ll find. In a 2013 article titled “Snowstorms or Snowflakes,” I explained:
A collectivist sees humanity as a snowstorm, and that’s as up-close as he gets if he’s consistent. An individualist sees the storm too, but is immediately drawn to the uniqueness of each snowflake that composes it. The distinction is fraught with profound implications.
If this point is lost on you, then watch the 1998 DreamWorks animated film, Antz. The setting is an ant colony in which all ants are expected to behave as an obedient blob. This is very convenient for the tyrant ants in charge, each of which possesses a very unique personality indeed. The debilitating collectivist mindset is shaken by a single ant who marches to a different drummer — namely, his own self — and ultimately saves the colony through his individual initiative.
Barbatus, voiced by actor Danny Glover, is one of the ants in Antz who lives his entire life as an indistinguishable bit of the collective blob known as the colony. In his last words to Z, the hero of the story voiced by Woody Allen, he says, “Don’t make my mistake, kid. Don’t follow orders your whole life. Think for yourself.”
Reflecting on that poignant moment later, Z sadly confides to another ant, “He just died in my arms like that. You know, I don’t think he ever once, in his life, made his own choice.”
Never to make a choice of your own is, to me, what Hell must be like.
Individuality vs. Collectivism
Individualism embraces human nature, our inherent individuality. Collectivism attempts to thwart it. The largest, most horrendous mass murders in history were collectivist crusades against the individual. Stalin, responsible for a minimum of 20 million murders, is widely reputed to have declared that “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”
The collectivist disparages the individual. He tells us there’s some higher moral good to “the group,” especially if he gets to define it or run it. Collective entities invariably reduce to very specific individuals telling other individuals what to do — or else!
Individualism is sometimes portrayed as anti-social. Nothing could be further from the truth. FEE’s Dan Sanchez explains:
As individualists have long emphasized, self-interest draws individuals toward mutually advantageous exchanges: toward “doing business” with one another.
After all, it’s the individual, not the collective, who decides to marry, to form a family, to employ people, to enjoy parties and other social get-togethers, to create wealth and trade, and to be neighborly in a thousand ways.
As Ayn Rand warned,
Do not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says: “I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.” An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man — his own and those of others.
Celebrate the Individual
I invite you to celebrate the individual, today and every day. It’s who we are, the way we were made, the way we grow, the way we make a difference in the world. Toward that end, I offer the reader this small sample of some of the best that’s been said about the subject:
- “You were born an original work of art. Stay original. An original is worth more than a copy.” – Suzy Kassem in Rise Up and Salute the Sun.
- “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” – Henry David Thoreau in Walden: Or, Life in the Woods.
- “Always strive to be yourself, even though the world is doing everything to make you like everybody else.” – Joseph Rain in The Unfinished Book About Who We Are.
- “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” – Ayn Rand in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
- “…[N]ature has gone to endless trouble to see that every individual is unlike every other individual. … Physically and mentally, each one of us is unique. Any culture which, in the interests of efficiency or in the name of some political or religious dogma, seeks to standardize the human individual, commits an outrage against man’s biological nature.” – Aldous Huxley in Brave New World Revisited.
- “All rational action is in the first place individual action. Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.” – Ludwig von Mises in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis.
- “The destructive work of totalitarian machinery, whether or not this word is used, is usually supported by a special kind of primitive social philosophy. It proclaims not only that the common good of ‘society’ has priority over the interests of individuals, but that the very existence of individuals as persons is reducible to the existence of the social ‘whole’; in other words, personal existence is, in a strange sense, unreal. This is a convenient foundation for any ideology of slavery.” – Leszek Kołakowski in Is God Happy?
- “To manipulate men, to propel them toward goals which you—the social reformers—see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.” – Isaiah Berlin in Four Essays on Liberty.
- “The vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth.” – Ayn Rand’s John Galt in Atlas Shrugged.
- “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.” – Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience and Other Essays.
- “All greatness of character is dependent on individuality. The man who has no other existence than that which he partakes in common with all around him, will never have any other than an existence of mediocrity…Individuality is the aim of political liberty. By leaving to the citizen as much freedom of action and of being as comports with order and the rights of others, the institutions render him truly a freeman. He is left to pursue his means of happiness in his own manner.” – The Last of the Mohicans author James Fenimore Cooper in “On Individuality” in The American Democrat.
- “…[I]n the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.” – Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
For Additional Reading, See:
- “The Battle Isn’t Right Vs. Left: It’s Statism vs. Individualism” by Daniel Mitchell
- “Hayek on Individualism” by F. A. Hayek
- “Individualism vs. Communism” by Clarence Carson
- “What Hayek Taught Us About Individualism, True and False” by Emily Skarbek
- “The Best Defenses of Individualism in One Book” by Marco Den Ouden
- “What Individualism Is Not” by Frank Chodorov
- “The Fear of Individualism” by Tibor Machan
- “Individualism Vs. Selfishness-ism” by Sandy Ikeda
- “The Sweet Sociability of Self-Interest” by Dan Sanchez
- “How Jesus Exorcised Ancient Collectivism” by David Gornoski
- “Individualism vs. Racism” by Anne Wortham
- “Methodological Individualism” by Warren Gibson
- “Snowstorms or Snowflakes?” by Lawrence W. Reed
- “Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain’t So” by Charles Johnson
Originally published at Fee.org. Lawrence W. Reed is President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Ambassador for Global Liberty at the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also author of Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.
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