Part III: The Bumpy Road to Individualism – Conclusion

by | Dec 20, 2008

By the end of the Italian Renaissance the battle remained horrifically one-sided. Collectivism is the political expression of altruism, i.e., that each man should live for others. Altruism is a known and widely accepted moral code. It has been the foundation of the world’s religions for over two thousand years. Individualism had no explicit moral […]

By the end of the Italian Renaissance the battle remained horrifically one-sided. Collectivism is the political expression of altruism, i.e., that each man should live for others. Altruism is a known and widely accepted moral code. It has been the foundation of the world’s religions for over two thousand years.

Individualism had no explicit moral base. Those who attempted to ground it in the self, or the ego, corrupted the meaning of the self, the ego and individualism. Nietzsche’s view, for instance, of the egoist as a destructive brute determined to achieve his own ends without regard for means and indifferent to human misery is the widely accepted view of selfishness, of egoism and of individualism. To change that view, certain crucial questions had to be raised and answered to establish the factual base of the science of ethics, which would give substance to egoism and to individualism. But for over 400 years no one knew the right questions to ask. Meanwhile the battle between implicit individualism and collectivist raged.

In art history, the baroque period (1550 to 1750) follows the Italian Renaissance. In many ways baroque art reflects the same conflicts that troubled the Renaissance. In the visual arts—the swirling drapery and disturbed poses in sculpture, the sometimes overly ornate curving forms in architecture, the clash between so-called “Romanticism” and Classicism in painting—indicated the fermenting undercurrents, which continued to swell without resolution. The same powerful stirrings were also taking place in music and literature.

Given the two hundred years attributed to the baroque, its expression in Italian art was understandably much different from its expression in, say, the art of England or Holland at a later date. Yet a common thread linked them. The philosophical underpinning of the times was in flux and men’s actions showed it. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the characteristic that defines the essential meaning of the period was agitation—agitation in thought, agitation in action, agitation in values and goals.

Agitation was evident in the long-brewing controversies preceding the Protestant Reformation. But it had nothing to do with individual men’s personal relation to their religion. Rather, it was like a family squabble over methodology, a conflict among mystic tribalists who shared the same basic view of man. The individual continued to be viewed as merely an undifferentiated part of a group. Agitation preceded the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) much of which she inherited and resolved to the benefit and glory of England. Nonetheless, the essence of the individual’s relationship to the state did not change. He remained a subject, servant to the state.

Agitation colored the exploration and settlement of the New World. Thousands of men were leaving the Old World to make a new life on an uncharted continent. While Church and state forced collectivism upon the New World, agitation continued between the individual and the group in the Old as Dutch financial establishments worked to seed numerous business enterprises struggling to disentangle themselves from the guild system.

Amidst this turmoil John Locke (1632-1704) completed his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It was published in 1690. In the same year his Two Treatises on Civil Government was also published. This, Locke’s political philosophy, is among the most crucial works in man’s history. Locke argued that all men were equal before the law, that each man had inalienable rights of life, property, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that possession of these rights obligated a man to not violate the rights of others. His work heralded in the Enlightenment in England, which then spread to the continent and across the Atlantic to the New World. There, Locke’s ideas were the rock upon which the United States was born. His views comprised the first explicit identification of individual rights. And it turned the collective view of man on its ear.

Politically, the concept of individualism is the doctrine that government exists for the individual and that government’s only role is to protect individual rights. Economically, individualism is expressed by laissez-faire capitalism, which entails limited government. Socially, individualism is the recognition that the individual is the primary unit of action. He may choose to cooperate with others, but it is understood that no man can think for another as no man can digest another’s food. A man may persuade other men to work for him, to help him realize an idea. But in all cases, each man is an autonomous, sovereign unit of thought and action. Therefore, a particular form of government is required to protect and defend individual rights.

Locke’s brilliant achievement and America’s Founding Fathers’ valiant implementation of his ideas combined to form a government for the people and by the people: a government to serve the individual, to insure individual freedom by protecting individual rights. For the first time in history—for a dazzling but all too brief period—the individual was recognized as the proper center of government. The see-saw between individualism and collectivism began a shaky back and forth teeter with individualism on a slow upswing although still badly weighted by mistaken perceptions.

The upswing was the torrent of productive energy that Locke’s ideas unleashed. The United States entered into one of the most extraordinary periods in man’s history. For about one hundred years individual rights were protected with little government interference. The result was increasing productivity and prosperity as Americans created the richest nation in history and the most generous people on earth. The benevolence that is the result of freedom achieved through the protection of individual rights vindicated Locke’s deep conviction that man by nature was good.

But the Constitution included some grave errors. The errors led to a steady erosion of individual rights. Through those errors individualism was in continual jeopardy.

Although the preamble to the Constitution has no political power, two phrases in it allowed collectivists to gain unjustified power over American citizens. Those two phrases are “We the people” and “promote the general welfare.” The first has been interpreted to augment Federal government power, draining state power. The second has been interpreted to justify welfare programs and the Federal government’s authority over same.

Both interpretations commit the fallacy of dropping the context of man’s rights. If one holds individual rights sovereign “We the people” simply refers to the voluntary agreement of individuals to cooperate for a specific purpose. It is merely a re-statement of the fact that “the people” is composed of individuals. It is not a license to subordinate the individual to the collective.

In a similar way, only by dropping the context can the phrase “promote the general welfare” be used to justify destruction of individual rights. It is precisely the protection of individual rights that promotes the general welfare. “Promoting the general welfare” is merely a re-stating that the government’s job is to protect individual rights, not usurp them.

The third error is the so-called commerce clause, Article 1, Section 8, in particular point 3: “The Congress shall have the power . . . to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes . . .” Although many other points in Section 8 permit government intervention in the economy, it was point 3 that allowed collectivists to legislate laws that hamper free enterprise and expand Federal power. Article 1, Section 8 became the battleground for and against increased regulation of business.

Aided by the errors in the U.S. Constitution, European rulers also inspired collectivists’ goals. Between 1883 and 1887 Bismark inaugurated the welfare state as a weapon against his enemies. Less than thirty years later, the Federal Reserve in the United States (1913) was established. It was a powerful blow against the rights of bankers and all who dealt with bankers, which meant of course every individual who had an account with a bank, invested in stock or dealt with those who did. Legislating how banks should operate was the collectivists means of controlling the life-blood of the nation.

By 1917 collectivists took over the government of Russia. Over two million peasants were slaughtered to force agrarian collectives. In the cities, the life’s work of countless individuals was taken over in the name of the re-distribution of wealth. As Russians were herded together to march in celebration of collectivism’s triumph, they were starving—like hundreds of thousands more throughout the Soviet Union.

The collectivist tsunami swept across the European continent. Money was printed by the truckload to fund welfare programs. By 1923 a widespread, exceptionally severe inflationary depression crushed the German people, setting the stage for the rise of German fascism.

In 1929, the United States entered what has become known as the Great Depression, an economic disaster caused by the Federal Reserve’s “easy money policies.” The manipulation of the money supply without goods and/or services to back the printed dollars resulted in expansion of credit without any backing, installment buying without any concern for repayment and wild speculation in the stock market. Nothing could contain the empty dollars. And nothing did. The economy collapsed.

During the 1930s the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt sunk America deeper into the welfare state. The government interfered more often and more deeply in more businesses and more markets. Collectivism was on a binge, flying high, its praises sung almost everywhere while people suffered and prosperity declined. Nothing seemed able to stop it.

One individual alone rose to challenge collectivism. One individual alone saw the fundamental cause for the continual victories of collectivism and of the inability of individualism to combat it. One individual without allies, without great wealth, without social or political connections saw the missing ingredient that individualism desperately needed to sustain itself and forge a proper foundation for a free society.

In 1934, a book entitled We the Living was published for the first time. It was the work of a young woman who had emigrated from the Soviet Union to become an American citizen. It was published in Italian and Mussolini thought it was an attack on his enemies; so, he permitted its circulation. When someone in his gang observed that the novel was stirring individuals against his regime, he ordered it taken out of circulation. We the Living is a novel showing the destructiveness of all forms of totalitarianism.

In 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, Ayn Rand, the author of We the Living, finally found a publisher for her second novel The Fountainhead. The beginning of a significant turnaround toward individualism was launched. It was a slow beginning. Advertising for The Fountainhead was modest and restrained. Only one critic saw its monumental importance. The novel, dramatizing the value of individualism and the source of creative thought, was made into a movie. It was not highly promoted. Nonetheless, sales of the novel continued and remained steady. In 1958, Miss Rand’s masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged, was published. Left and right, liberals and conservatives alike, all attacked the book. Altruists/collectivists at root, they saw the threat of Atlas Shrugged.

Nonetheless, the novel found a receptive audience. The audience was comprised largely of those who were NOT politicians, media, or college professors. Interest in Miss Rand’s work grew yearly. Today Atlas Shrugged is at the top of the literary marketplace.

Ayn Rand raised and answered basic questions regarding man’s moral code. She identified the proper standard of the good and identified the moral code at the base of individualism. It is the ethics of rational self-interest—also known as rational egoism—or as she titled one of her non-fiction works, The Virtue of Selfishness. Miss Rand demonstrated that selfishness is concern with one’s own interests, that according to man’s nature as a rational, volitional being his interests are shaped by the fundamental values of reason, purpose and self-esteem and that his actions are guided by virtues in keeping with those fundamental values. Rational selfishness is the necessary and essential foundation of capitalism. Laissez-faire capitalism requires the free exercise of one’s rights, which is individualism.

Individualism has been given a mighty leg up.

Yet the struggle continues. On the one hand, big government corruption and fiscal irresponsibility are causing many Americans to recognize that collectivism is an effort to enslave them. On the other hand, collectivists are exploiting Americans’ present fears and anger by blaming individual businessmen for government’s faults and calling for wider government powers.

Beneath this surface, a fundamental, long-range change is taking place. It is real. It is happening. It is seen in several clues. For instance, collectivists’ ridicule and insult has replaced substantive argument, showing that their arguments have grown from thin to empty. The eminent collapse of Newsweek, a self-proclaimed socialist magazine, is another clue that collectivism is all but dead. What sustains it is only the moral code of altruism.

The best way to show the manipulative destructiveness of altruism is to advocate the positive benefits and importance of individual rights. The Ayn Rand Institute and the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights are engaged in this education process. In addition, a number of informed activists are working in areas of their own interest to counter government’s increasing disregard of individual rights.

It’s likely that years from now when individualism is taken for granted many will wonder what was all the fuss about. “Of course,” they will say in the future, “individualism is the only doctrine proper to man. It could not be otherwise.” And they will be right.

Sylvia Bokor is an artist and writer. You can read more of her writings on her blog.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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