Individualism or Society?
The human trait known as individualism can be understood in two distinct ways. The first implies an individual's aspiration to self-reliance or independence, and the need to exist as individual human beings. The second, by contrast, is understood as a social theory which prioritises freedom of action by individuals over the authority of an all-powerful state. As far as the second conception is concerned, individualism as a discrete construct of Western thought really came to the fore with the onset of capitalism in the late seventeenth century. The two most influential English political philosophers of that period —and since —Hobbes and Locke, outlined ideal models of government of a distinctly individualist hue. In their view, the state's function was to protect a citizen's individual liberties and interfere with any citizen's actions only when those actions violated another individual's right to act freely. For both, society is nothing more than an agglomeration of individuals; it has no reality independent of the individuals that make it up.
In practice, in the context of late twentieth and early twenty-first century developed societies, the term 'individualism' is generally congruent with a world view whose adherents wage a metaphorical low-level war against what they perceive to be the incessant and incremental growth in the power of the state. True individualists would undoubtedly argue that society's attempts to regulate the individualist's two most closely guarded spheres of personal liberty — economic and civil — will always represent individualism's most keenly fought over battlegrounds. This strongly individualistic view of the role of society is often referred to as 'libertarianism'.
An intriguing characteristic of those professing to be libertarians is that they
can happily disagree, equally vehemently, with a government policy on, say, education, from either a distinctly 'left' or a distinctly 'right'...
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