Individualism, Society, and Liberty


In “How Our Individualism Has Trapped Us in a Welfare State,” Heather Judd has taken a stab at an issue that I’ve pondered for a long time: the tension between individualism and society. Now, by “society” I mean true society:

Society — true society — consists of people who, among other things, agree as to the limits on what one may do. That shared view isn’t imposed by regulation, statute, or judicial decree — though such things will arise from the shared view in a true society. Rather, the shared view arises from the experience of living together and finding the set of customs and prohibitions that yields peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Liberty, in other words.

“The experience of living together and finding” a common “set of customs and prohibitions” seems consistent with Judd’s view of society, which she calls “an organized group of people sharing a common culture.” Judd doesn’t directly address the libertarian aspect of true society, but the thrust of her essay points in that direction. She laments the fact that

[c]ultural individualization has…cornered us into a welfare state mentality from which we cannot escape unless we replace our concept of a society of individuals with something more ordered and interconnected.

Toward the end of her essay she puts it this way:

Living together in isolation is not a sustainable social model. So long as we continue to think of the individual as the basic unit of society, our progression toward the disenchanted welfare state will continue, even while no amount of socialized government intervention will provide the human cohesion we need.

Judd’s view is that family is the backbone of society. And the drift away from families to individuals is destroying that backbone, which must be reconstructed. In her words,

government is incapable of buttressing our crumbling human connections. That task must start with rebuilding individuals into families and families into society. Like every great undertaking, the process will be slow and require sacrifice, but the recompense will be not only a healthy and sustainable society, but also, paradoxically, a stronger sense of our individual identity as we reconnect with other human beings.

I think she’s right about the breakdown of family, but her vague exhortation at the end leaves me wondering what can actually be done about it And even if there were some restoration of the family on a relatively large scale, I don’t think it would do much to alleviate the fragmentation of the United States, which has never been a society in the true meaning of the word.

Why have family ties loosened and broken? The answer, in two words: prosperity and mobility. Even without the welfare state (and despite it), a large fraction of the populace can afford to buy things like housing and elder-care that until World War II were often provided by families.

Greater mobility goes hand in hand with greater prosperity; the expansion of economic activity has been both intensive and extensive. Modern people are no different than their hunter-gatherer forbears; they go where their labors earn greater rewards. And in doing so they leave behind grandparents, parents, and siblings — most of whom are prosperous enough to fend for themselves. American families have been drifting apart for many generations. The drift was masked to some extent by the influx of European immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, whose strong bonds were forged by economic necessity and mutual self-defense against xenophobic natives. But those bonds, too, have dissolved to the point that the exceptions (e.g., Amish and Hasidic communities) are notable for their rarity. And so it will be with the Hispanic immigration of recent decades, though economic necessity and ethnic differences probably will bind Hispanic immigrants far longer than they bound European ones.

So I don’t see the restoration of the family as likely — barring another World War II or Great Depression. Nor do I see the restoration of the family as necessary to the demotion of the welfare state. The welfare state does feed on individualism, but it also feeds on widespread economic ignorance and the cupidity of politicians and bureaucrats.

Economic ignorance abets cupidity, in that politicians and bureaucrats are able to feed their power-lust and line their pockets because most Americans have no grasp of the huge economic cost of the welfare state — or more accurately, the regulatory-welfare state. If the regulatory-welfare state is to be contained and diminished by electoral means, a huge number of Americans must be convinced of its exorbitant cost in dollars and liberty.

One might as well try to melt an iceberg with a hair dryer. Only a minority of economists understands or is willing to admit the dire economic consequences of the regulatory-welfare state, and only a minority of constitutional scholars understands or is willing to admit the anti-libertarian consequences of the regulatory-welfare state. More importantly — because only a small fraction of Americans is aware of what those “fringe” economists and constitutional scholars say — relatively few politicians and pundits on the national stage understand, agree with, and accurately relay those views to Americans. For every Ted Cruz there are probably two or three Bernie Sanderses.

To repeat the themes of recent posts, leftists are ruthless and they have the rhetorical advantage over principled politicians because they are very good at promising things without knowing or caring about the economic and social costs of what they promise. Their appeal to Mr. and Ms. Average and Below-Average — which is most Americans — rests on envy. Leftists are always on the lookout for privilege, which they promise to uproot:

Privilege…implies that the possessors of certain positive attributes (high intelligence, good looks, high income, access to political power) have come by those things undeservedly, and even at the expense of those who lack them: the underprivileged. [Leftists] believe implicitly in a state of nature wherein everyone would have equal endowments of intelligence, looks, etc., if only it weren’t for “bad luck.” [Leftists] believe it necessary to use the power of government to alleviate (if not eliminate) unequal endowments and to elevate the “victims” of inequality.

If you were Mr. or Ms. Average or Below-Average, would you willingly sacrifice the (illusory) prosperity of the regulatory-welfare state and reject its promise of making everyone a winner? What’s more disheartening — but unsurprising given the state of political discourse — is that  Mr. and Ms. Above-Average are not only reluctant to abandon the regulatory-welfare state, but are its staunchest proponents.

In sum, individualism is here to stay, regardless of what happens to the regulatory-welfare state, unless there is a return to the dire days of 1930-1945. And even then, the regulatory-welfare state is here to stay, unless there is a negotiated partition of the country, a (successful) secession movement, or a coup by liberty-loving patriots.

I’m sorry, but that’s the way it looks from here.


4 thoughts on “Individualism, Society, and Liberty

  1. Judd’s statements made me curious so I read her post. I understand the issue of government co-opting the function of private charity (from societal institutions and individuals), however I don’t think she identified the right “common denominator” in blaming individualism to the degree that she does. I wonder if she’s looked at the level of liberty and prosperity in some East Asian countries because they exhibit qualities of societies which, in her view, would support a free society – low divorce rate (laws forbidding divorce in some places), family recognized as the social unit of primary importance, higher mutual social obligation between individuals (particularly for blood-related kin), “embryonic” social welfare – see links here: ).

    However, I wouldn’t describe life in those countries as being more liberty-oriented (free from state intrusion and corruption) than the U.S. even if there’s less social welfare. The hyper-collectivism there engenders such a degree of conformity that people in many Asian societies (as I know them) socially stigmatize taking risks, being “different,” and “breaking out on one’s own” to become an entrepreneur or start a business (to a greater degree than I find here). From what I understand, THIS is the rugged individualism tradition upon which the U.S. was founded upon. With few exceptions (like Japan?), those countries aren’t as innovative to a degree that’s required for the type of economic prosperity (and freedoms that stem from this prosperity) the U.S. enjoys. (At this time, I know that one of China’s pressing national concerns is how to cultivate creativity in their populace.)

    Where Judd asks, “Can you actually avoid being yourself?,” I’d answer “Yes.” The fact that she asks this (and doesn’t seem to realize that some individuals can and do subjugate their wishes, desires, and identity on a consistent, ongoing basis because others demand it of them) suggests that she’s an individualist herself but doesn’t realize it. (On this issue, I’m consistently myself and very rarely not myself, however I’ve witnessed others “bend like the reeds” and not have a sense of one’s own identity, as my father’s remarked, in response to social contexts and cues.) There are real, biologically-based individual differences (notably the 5-HTTLPR allele) explaining the penchant to be an individualist (idiocentric) or collectivist (allocentric). The type of allele one has modulates one’s visceral, physiological sensitivity to social influence and norms. Judging from what Judd’s written, I don’t think she’s explored this:

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    • A further thought, which I think is consistent with the statistics presented in some of your references: Americans, historically, are mainly of European origin. And although many European immigrants formed close-knit groupings on their arrival in America, those groupings gradually dissolved (though not yet entirely) as the generations wore on. And they did so in part because “being oneself” and being entrepreneurial are in fact European traits, and they were especially abundant among the Europeans who were willing to venture across the Atlantic to a new world. The expansion of government, first in Europe and then in the United States, has suppressed those traits — especially entrepreneurship, which is now more prevalent among Asian and Hispanic newcomers to America. As you suggest, there’s a downside to living in a close-knit society, especially if it’s one that suppresses individuality and productive risk-taking (e.g., entrepreneurship). Without those things, human beings would still be living in caves and foraging for berries.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. Your comment here, “As you suggest, there’s a downside to living in a close-knit society, especially if it’s one that suppresses individuality and productive risk-taking (e.g., entrepreneurship),” reminded me of the reasons why Asian parents discouraged their children from undertaking productive risk-taking. It comes back to family members’ being responsible for each other. Firstly, parents would have to absorb the consequences of children who took a risk and failed. And the children were the parents’ “safety net” during old age – so wanting their children to take safer career paths makes sense.

        I would put those who voluntarily and purposefully took a risk to come here and build a new life (as opposed to being driven out, etc.) as being the more individualistic members of Asia (and wherever else) as well. In terms of marital and family ties, if you compare divorce rates among Filipinos in their country of origin (where divorce is against the law) with divorce rates of Filipinos in the U.S. (who, again, represent the more individualistic members of their home country in order to be willing to leave anyhow), you might find that interesting.


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