Individualism: Meaning, Background and Evaluation

The Ideology of Individualism gives highest importance to the rights and freedom of the individual.

It regards individual as the centre of all social activities and fully capable of his development. It wants the state to work as an institution committed to protect the rights, freedom and welfare of the individual.

Individualism believes that man is a rational being and capable of achieving everything. He is the maker of his own destiny and fully capable of realising his all interests independently without any interference from the State.

Individualism | Marcel Gomes - Sweden

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Individualism: Traditional Meaning

Individualism has been a very old ideology. In its traditional from it advocates:

1. Individual as the centre of all importance:

Individualism maintains that individual is and should remain as the centre of society. He must remain free from controls and laws. These always limit his liberty and check his development.


2. State as a Means:

Individualism regards state as a means and individual as the end. State is a machine made by the people for their protection from internal disturbances and external aggressions… It is an organisation for maintaining law and order and for providing security to the life, and property and all rights of the people.

3. State as a Necessary Evil:

Traditional Individualism regards state as a necessary evil—necessary for performing protection functions and an evil because its laws limit the liberty of the individual. Consequently, it advocates that the sphere of state activity should be always limited to the minimum possible functions i.e. only to the maintenance of peace, order and security. It believes, “that government is best which governs the least.” The state should have no role in the sphere of economic relations. The State should leave the individual free to pursue his all interests.


To sum up, we can say that in its traditional form, regards the state as a machine made for the benefit of the individual. It regards the state as a necessary evil and therefore assigns to it minimum functions. It advocates maximum freedom for the individual.

In the sphere of economic relations, it stands for free enterprise, open competition involving a free play of the forces of demand and supply in trade, industry, and commerce. Individualism wants the state to keep itself away from all economic activities.

Historical Background:

Traditional Individualism, Views of Locke, Mill and Spencer:

(A) Individualism as explained by John Locke:

Individualism has been a very ancient ideology. In the 17th century, it was strongly advocated by John Locke. He advocated full faith in the natural rights of man and held that state was made by the people for protecting their natural rights. Towards the end of 18th century.

Individualism got a new popularity as a reaction against the principle of Mercantilism which advocated full and active governmental regulation and protection of industry and commerce. Against it, individualism maintained that state should not interfere or check individual enterprise which alone could secure better a production of national wealth.

Economic Individualism of Adam Smith:

Supporters of Individualism held that private property and freedom of contract were essential conditions for every society. The state should leave the individual alone and act only for respecting and protecting his private property and free competition.

It should follow the principle of lasses faire, which means full economic freedom for the individual… In England Adam Smith came out with the view that demand and supply were self-regulating and freedom of enterprise was the best means for rapid and comprehensive economic development. Economic freedom makes men enterprising, industrious and responsible.” Free competition increases production, ensures efficiency and maximizes economic development.

Individualism as defined by JS Mill:

In the 19th century J.S. Mill and Herbert Spencer built up a strong case in favour of individualism as a social and political theory. In his essay “On Liberty” J.S. Mill built a solid case in favour of individuality and liberty. He advocated that each individual should be completely free to develop his individuality.

He should enjoy complete and unrestrained freedom of action in respect of all the activities which concerned only him. “Individual liberty is the end in itself and there should be no restraints on it.” Neither the society nor the state should in any way interfere with individual liberty.

Mill strongly supported the case for the liberty and individuality of the individual and regarded the state as a necessary evil. He upheld the principle of little state interference in individual liberty and economic freedom. Nevertheless, during his old age, Mill accepted the desirability of state passing laws for reforming working conditions in factories as well as for promoting the greatest happiness of greatest numbers.

Herbert Spencer’s Individualism:

Herbert Spencer also supported individualism and held that ‘struggle for existence’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ were the best principles. Each individual should struggle for himself and survive or perish. The fittest alone should survive.

The only function of the state was to protect the individual from violence and fraud. Other than this the state should neither have the authority to legislate nor control the life and actions of the individual.” Even while describing the state as an organism, Spencer held that “the only way for its development was to let each individual develop by himself”.

Each individual is capable of securing his interests and develop best when left to himself. State should abide by the natural law of evolution and let every individual survive, live and work by himself. State should perform only police functions i.e. maintenance of law and order, and contract. It should neither regulate commerce and trade nor even perform welfare functions.

The ideas of Adam Smith, J.S Mill ad Herbert Spencer constituted the back bone of individualism which remained very popular in the 19th century. However, towards the end of the 19th century, Individualism began facing strong criticism from socialists and collectivists.

They began advocating that for the promotion of all round social welfare and development the state must use its power to regulate and control the life of the people and their groups. In this environment, Individualism got transformed into modern individualism.

Transformation of Traditional Individualism into Modern Individualism:

In the early 20th century, the Traditional/Classical Individualism got transformed into Modern Individualism which now defined the state as a federation of groups and a community of communities. The state got recognised as a necessary piece of administrative machinery. The responsibility to coordinate and adjust conflicting claims of various groups was accepted as its main function.

Modern individualists like Laski, Miss Follett and Norman Angell advocated a pluralistic view of sovereignty. They stressed the importance of groups in the life of the society and held that state was just one such group.

Later on, several other individualists came forward to stress that liberty was not the absence of restraints. In fact, Liberty needed the imposition of rational restraints against the irrational one. They advocated that the primary function of the state was to protect the rights and freedom of the people.

It was also held that the responsibility to maintain conditions essential for the protection of the interests of the people as well as for the promotion of welfare of all also belonged to the state. They came out in support of a liberal democratic state with a decentralized structure.

Modern individualism now got the name Liberalism. It accepted the role of the state as a welfare institution committed to protect and create conditions essential for the enjoyment of rights by the people. It accepted that the state was a natural and essential institution of man for providing protection to the society and rights and freedoms of the people. State is essentially needed for maintaining conditions essential for the promotion of socio-economic-politico-cultural welfare of all the people.

Justification of Individualism:

Supporters of Individualism give the following arguments in its favour:

1. Moral Argument:

Individual can develop best when he is free. State interference with his liberty destroys his initiative and self-reliance. The individual can develop his individually only when he is free from state control and interferences. Man is a moral being. Morals perfection is the end before him. He should be free to work for this end.

2. Biological Argument:

Some individualists like Herbert Spencer support individualism on the basis of the natural laws of evolution. They hold that ‘struggle for existence’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ is two basic natural laws of evolution. Individual can fully develop on the basis of these laws. The state has no business to interfere with the operation of these natural laws of life.

Each individual should be free to live by these laws of natural evolution. People must live naturally under natural conditions and only then can the society be the society of the free and fittest men and women.

3. Economic Argument:

Individualism derives strength from the economic principles advocated by Adam Smith. Each individual is capable of securing his self- interest. Freedom of action in industry, trade and business is the best means for economic progress. Free enterprise, open competition, and freedom of contract are essential for raped economic development.

State interference in economic relations is always unproductive and harmful. State regulations in industry and trade leads to incompetence, inefficiency and shortages. Economic activities progress only when pursued by the private enterprise.

State should have little role in economic life. It should leave the economy alone for its development. Laisses Faire—the ‘Let Alone Policy’, was the best policy. Economic freedom i.e. free competition makes people enterprising, industrious and responsible. State control and state interferences always kill individual initiative, enterprise and progress.

4. Political Argument:

Supporters of individualism hold that the authority and laws of the state always limit individual freedom. The more the laws, the lesser is the liberty. State came into existence only for checking selfish and harmful activities of man. There is no reason for it to interfere in the private life of the individual.

It must leave the individual alone in respect of all his activities which concern him and him alone. The state should perform only protection functions. The only purpose for which power of the state power should be used is to prevent harm to other. It must not in any way interfere with the liberty and individuality of man. It must let the individual enjoy maximum freedom.

On the basis of all these arguments, Individualism strongly advocates the need for a limited functioning state keeping itself away from all undesirable interferences in the rights and freedom of the individual. It regards individual as the centre of all social life, the best judge of his interests and needs and fully capable of developing himself when left free to develop.

Each individual can pursue his enlightened self- interest in all spheres of social and economic life. Free competition, free trade, and freedom from state Interference are the best principles for economic development.

Criticism of Individualism:

Critics of individualism give the following arguments against it:

1. State Is Not A Necessary Evil:

It is wrong to say that state is a necessary evil. It did not originate only for checking selfishness and evil doings of some people. On the contrary, it originated naturally for satisfying several essential needs of the people. Aristotle rightly says that the state came into being for the sake of life and continues to exist for the sake of good life. State is a natural and necessary institution for the protection, preservation and development of human life in its all dimensions.

2. State is not the enemy of liberty:

It is indeed wrong to say that the activities of state are opposed to individual liberty. It is only when state maintains law and orders as well as the essential conditions for civilized living that the people really enjoying their liberty. Liberty is not absence of restraints. Unrestrained liberty is neither needed nor possible. It is possible only in a jungle.

In society, the individual cannot be given this license. Real liberty demands some rational restraints—i.e. restraints necessary for maintaining public health, morality, order and security. Such restraints have to be applied equally to all the citizens. The state alone can impose and enforce such rational and uniform restraints.

3. Individual is not always the best judge:

Faith in individual wisdom and capacity is good. However, it cannot be accepted that the individual is always the best judge of his interests and needs. He can be selfish and subjective in evaluating social needs or the needs of others. Neither each individual has equal power nor equal needs and nor even equal wisdom, experience and capacity.

Society is a better judge of the intellectual, moral and even physical needs of the individual. There is every need to secure a balance between individual interests and social needs. This can be done effectively and efficiently by the state.

4. State acts as the guardian protector and promoter of the rights of individual:

Rights and freedoms of the individual need protection from external and internal constraints. State, acting through its judiciary, acts as the guardian-protector of the rights of all the people. People can enjoy their rights only under the rule of law and not in its absence. The state is essential for creating such conditions as are essential for the enjoyment of rights and freedoms by all the people of society.

5. Modern State is a Welfare State:

It is indeed wrong to regards the state as a police state or a necessary evil. The state is a welfare state committed to pursue common good. It is wrong to believe that state action for promoting the welfare of all and the common good of society, involves a limitation of individual freedom. It is indeed essential that the state should act for eliminating social evils.

6. Theory of Laisses Faire has proved to be inadequate and even harmful:

Free competition, free trade and free enterprise can lead to economic prosperity and growth. However, unregulated economic freedom can lead to bigger and bigger inequalities and exploitations in society. These always act as a source of miseries, ill- health, hunger and disease for the weaker sections of society.

The role of the state is needed to safeguard the interests of the poor and weaker sections of society. It is needed to ensure a fairer and equitable distribution of wealth, and all round sustainable development.

7. Struggle For Existence And Survival Of The Fittest Are Dangerous Principles:

These principles cannot be regarded as the best principles for living and development. These operate only in a jungle where the stronger animals can live by killing and eating smaller and weaker animals. In society all the people, whether strong or weak have the right to live and enjoy the protection of state.

The state acts for the protection of the interests of the all sections of society. The acceptance of these two principles would make each individual a law unto himself and the net result would be disorders, anarchy, chaos, violence, misery, death and destruction.

8. Wrong view of relationship between the Individual and Society:

Individualism wrongly conceives of society as a collection of individuals. Such an atomistic view of society is indeed wrong. Society is something more than a mere coexistence of several individuals. Social good is something more than ‘individual good’. Society is a web of social relations and promotion of social welfare needs collective efforts under uniform state laws and policies.

The individual is an integral part of the society. Social welfare means welfare of all people. No doubt there can be no society without individuals, however, it must also be remembered that a civilised living can be possible only in a society.

On the basis of these arguments the critics strongly criticise Individualism.

Chief Merit of Individualism:

The chief merit of individualism lies in the fact that it places highest emphasis upon rights and freedom of the people. We must praise it for this. However, its advocacy of state as a necessary evil constitutes its chief demerit. The state is a natural social institution of the people. People living in all parts of the world have been living as citizens of their respective states and their states have been acting as welfare states.

Individualism in Contemporary times: Liberalism:

In its contemporary form Individualism has taken the form of positive liberalism. It has come out of the narrow ideology of traditional individualism. It now accepts the role of state but at the same time continues to place emphasis upon the rights and freedom of each person of society.

Contemporary Individualism i.e. Liberalism rejects the extreme theory of traditional individualism as well as the absolutist and collectivist theory of all- powerful state. It rejects the negative view of liberty and functions of the state as was held by the traditional individualists. It holds a positive view of liberty and accepts the role of state as a welfare state. State is the sovereign association which commands the allegiance of its entire people.

The purpose of the state is to create and maintain conditions essential for the protection and enjoyment of rights and freedoms of the people… Laws of the State serve as the basis for the protection of liberty and rights of the people against all violations. Modern State works as a welfare state committed to promote socio-economic welfare and social security of all the people of society.

Even while advocating a strong defence of rights and freedom of the people Modern Liberalism accepts the positive and welfare role of the State as a natural and essential institution. While advocating political and economic liberalisation privatisation, open competition and free enterprise, it accepts the positive role of State. It works for securing justice, healthcare, education and social security for all the people without any discrimination.

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