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Individualism (Liberalism)

A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 2 Jun 2020

Individualism is the beating heart of liberal ideology, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship between the individual and the state

Liberalism is a term which derives from the Latin word “liber” meaning free men. All liberals would agree wholeheartedly with John Stuart Mill’s words that “over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” This argument applies to both main strands of liberalism. At this early stage, it is sufficient to note that classical liberalism is on the right-libertarian axis whereas social liberalism is left-libertarian. Liberals also concur with Immanuel Kant’s conception of the individual as an end in themselves rather than the means towards the satisfaction of a collective goal.

Individualism is the beating heart of liberal ideology, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship between the individual and the state. Indeed, to qualify as a liberal is to be instinctively suspicious of how the various agents of the state might use their power. Regardless of the country in question, liberals share an automatic distaste for an excessive level of power held by the state. Fundamentally, liberalism places a high degree of trust and responsibility upon the shoulders of individuals. For an ideology that is so strongly associated with a secular (i.e. non-religious) mindset, it is very much an article of faith amongst liberals that the individual is a rational human being responsible for their own behaviour. Ultimately, liberals seek to empower the individual with as much freedom as is practically possible. As the former Liberal Party leader William Gladstone once so neatly observed, “liberalism is trust in the people.”

Authoritarian ideologies offer an intriguing critique of liberalism. Marxists for instance perceive liberalism as flawed by its bourgeois assumptions, whereas fascists associate the liberal celebration of the individual with decadence and immorality. However, in the modern era it is religious fundamentalists who routinely face the forces of liberalism. This conflict is evident within the United States between the religious right and progressive forces such as pro-abortion groups. Christian fundamentalist groups like the Moral Majority criticise liberalism for its moral relativism and aggressive secularism. On an international level, a great many of the conflicts fought during the twentieth century were between liberal democracies and forces hostile towards individualism. As predicted by the political scientist Samuel Huntingdon (2002) the twenty-first century has thus far been characterised by a “clash of civilisations” between the liberal West and Islamic fundamentalism. To support his argument, one might consider events such as 9/11 and military conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya.

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