Essay on Individualism – Background, Meaning and Justification (Individualistic Theory)

Background of Individualism:

The individualistic theory of the State is as old as the State itself. The root of this theory may be traced back to the earliest political philosophy of the Sophism of ancient Greece However, as a political philosophy, it developed in the writings of John Locke, an English political philosopher of the 17th century, who was an ardent advocate of individualism Individualism came into prominence in the 18th and 19t centuries.

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A group of economists known as the physiocrats in France in the eighteenth century were considered to be the pioneers of individualism. The Physiocrats raised their battle-cry of “laissez-faire” or “leave individual alone”.

They totally opposed to the State interference in the economic sphere. Individualism partly developed due to the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century which had supported the idea of free competition, free trade and non­interference of the State in the economic system. As a social and political theory, it reached its peak in the nineteenth century.

Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and F.A. Hayek are main exponents of this theory. Adam Smith advocated free competition and noninterference of the State in economic system.

He denounced the laws which restricted free competition and free interaction of demand and supply. J.S.Mill was a strong advocate of individual freedom. He wrote, “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Herbert Spencer was also a great champion of individual liberty.

He said, “Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not upon the equal freedom of any other man.” F.A. Hayek strongly denounced planning and the State interference. He condemned planning as “a road to serfdom” (slavery).

Meaning and Statement of Individualism:

The individualistic theory is otherwise known as “the Laissez Faire Theory.” The term “laissez faire” in the French language means ‘let alone’ or ‘leave alone’. According to this theory, the State should ‘leave alone’ the individuals and should not interfere in the sphere of individual activities. It puts emphasis on individual happiness and prosperity. It assumes that individual is the centre of activities in any social system.

The individualistic theory considers the State as ‘a necessary evil’. It is an evil because it encroaches upon the freedom of individuals. As it is an evil, it is better to have as little of it as far as possible. But at the same time, the State is regarded as ‘necessary’ because of selfish and egoistic nature of human beings. It is necessary in order to stop the anti-social activities of individuals in the society. But it should not be all powerful, omnipotent and omnicompetent. Hence it is considered as a ‘necessary evil”.

They should have complete freedom to live and move freely in society. They should not face any obstruction form outside. The functions of the State should be confined to a minimum possible extent. The State is viewed as a negative institution. It should exist only to hinder the hindrances.

The individualistic theory advocates maximum freedom of the individuals and minimum functions of the State. It supports the idea of “that State is the best which governs the least.” Hence the individualists advocate “maximum possible individual freedom and minimum possible State action.”

The individualists stand for a police State. The function of a policeman is only preventive or negative in character. . Likewise the State should prevent the lawbreakers and hinder the hindrances on the path of individual in realisation of his best self. “The State is simply a policeman, and its duty is neither more or less than to prevent robbery and murder and enforce contracts.”

The State is also compared to a “night watchman” whose job is merely a negative one. The individualists are not unanimous as to what should be the legitimate functions of the State. Most of the individualists allow the State to perform the following two categories of functions:

1) Maintenance of law and order within State.

2) Protection of individuals against the external aggression. or internal rebellion.

Regarding the first category of functions, it is said that it is the duty of the State to protect life, liberty and property of the individuals. It should protect individuals from physical injury, slander and personal harms.

It should also protect individual against false contract or breach of contract and should see enforcement of contracts being lawfully made. The sole function of the government is to protect the individual form violence or fraud.

With regard to the second category of function, it is the duty of the State to protect-the individuals against external aggression or internal rebellion beyond these functions, the individualist do not allow the State to perform any other functions.

Justification of the Individualism

The advocates of individualism, while suggesting that the functions of the State should be limited, put forth various arguments. These arguments are made in favour of individualism. These arguments may be classified as ethical, economic, scientific and practical.

1) Ethical Defence :

Individualism may be justified or defended from ethical or moral ground. It is maintained that man’s personality can be best developed when he is left alone. It is only in a free atmosphere an individual can develop his personality. The highest development of individual is possible only when he gets an opportunity for self-development.

In a free atmosphere, incentive is provided to individual to develop his own self. The State interference of any kind is likely to destroy his incentive and make him indifferent in all matters. It is, therefore, in the fitness of things that an individual should get maximum freedom to develop his personality in the society.

2) Economic Defence:

Individualism is defended on economic grounds. If there is ‘free competition’ in a society, industry, trade and commerce will prosper well and there will be maximum production. Free competition among producers and labourers will bring about automatic adjustment of labour, profit, price, quantity and quality of production. It will result in maximum production. Further, free economic system provides sufficient incentives to persons to work hard Trade, industry and commerce flourish, if they are left to private enterprises.

3) Scientific Defence:

Individualism is also defended form scientific point of View. Competitions is said to be a scientific law of nature. There is a continuous struggle for existence in natural world and in this struggle only the fittest has the right to survive. The scientific defence of individualism is influenced by “the theory of evolution” of Darwin which upholds the views that free competition among species leads to the survival of the fittest. The weak and the incompetent, who cannot withstand the competition, will be eliminated from the field. The natural course of progress, therefore, depends on free competition and self-reliance. An individual should be allowed to stand or fall according to his merit in the competition for survival without any support from the State.

4) Practical Argument:

Practical experience shows that government attempts to do many things but fail to do them properly. Government action results in red tapism, waste, delay and corruption. As compared to public enterprises, the private enterprises are more efficient and earn greater profits. Hence the State should restrict its activities and give maximum opportunities to the individual to mobiles their own resources and achieve the best results for himself and the society at large.

To sum up, the individualistic theory does not favour the State interferences in the sphere of individual activities. Like “a night watchman”, the only function of the State is a keep and watch on life and property of the individual. Individualism aims at establishing free society with ample. Freedom and incentives guaranteed to individuals.


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