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Community and American Individualism

Community and American Individualism

5 Mins
October 14, 2010

November 2001 -- One of the most popular mantras, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, declares how great it is to see Americans coming together as a nation after this tragedy. And it is wonderful to see Americans stand together against an enemy that would destroy us.

But another mantra, equally popular, expresses regret that this unity did not exist before the terror attacks. Prior to these attacks, Americans were aware of their many differences: racial, economic, political, and cultural. But now, all these differences have melted away into a unified nation sharing in the same goals. A third mantra worries still further that as time goes on, America will lose this sense of unity. We will return to being a nation of individuals, instead of a national community.

America, however, is a nation of individuals and individualism. This is the essence of our founding documents—that each of us could pursue our own happiness and goals, and that we would be free to do so with limited interference. This sense of individualism not only exists in our political thinking, but in our cultural thinking as well. It exists within the Western/Action movie with its solitary hero and in Jazz with its emphasis on individualistic improvisation. It exists in the entrepreneurial technology economy with its dynamic and creative business leaders.


For some, this individualism has been an infuriating obstacle to their vision of what our society and state should be. Religious traditionalists, like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, would like to see the entire nation adopt their creed and morality. But they have been hampered by the country's multitude of philosophies and life-styles.

Similarly, there are those, like Harvard Professor Robert Putnam and Tikkun magazine editor Rabbi Michael Lerner, who would like to see society and government loom larger in people's lives. But they have been frustrated by Americans' self-reliance and independence.

To people of this mind-set, expressions of national unity seem to offer a vindication of their views and an opportunity to attack individualism. Thus, Professor Putnam was quoted (New York Times, 9/23/01) as saying that "we could use this moment to reclaim a sense of national unity and connectedness, a genuine sense that we actually feel responsible for each other." Similarly, Rabbi Lerner, in an article on Tikkun magazine's Web site, wrote that people's response to the World Trade Center attack was "an outpouring of loving energy and generosity" and that this showed "the capacity and desire we all have to care about each other." Lerner directly attacks individualism because it has "narrowed our own attention to 'getting through' or 'doing well' in our own personal lives" instead of focusing on all the problems of the rest of the world.

For collectivists like Falwell, Robertson, Putnam, and Lerner, individualism is breaking down any unity we have, so individualism must be kept to a minimum for a truly good society. At the core of their thought is the idea that unity and individualism are some how incompatible.


Fortunately, the collectivists are wrong to think that today's post-attack unity is contrary to American individualism and that it can be used to beat back that philosophy. The foundation of individualism lies in one's moral right to pursue one's own happiness. This pursuit requires a large amount of independence, initiative, and self-responsibility.

But true individualism entails cooperating with others through trade, which facilitates the pursuit of each party's happiness, and which is carried out not just on the level of goods but on the level of knowledge and friendship. Trade is essential for life; it provides one with many of the goods and values one needs. Creating an environment where trade flourishes is of great importance and great interest for the individualist.

Politically, true individualism means recognizing that one has a right to his own life and happiness. But it also means uniting with other citizens to preserve and defend the institutions that protect that right.

Unity and individualism are not mutually exclusive. We can be united as individuals without losing our individuality or our love for individual liberty. This unified action to protect our country—to keep it safe and secure—arises out of individualism, not in contradistinction to it.


Consequently, unity exists in an individualist society even during times of peace. For example, an individualist feels solidarity with his trading partners—buyers or sellers; teachers or students; friends or lovers: the people from whom he is constantly gaining values. An individualist also feels solidarity with his fellow citizens: those who he joins in supporting common institutions, such as the government that protects everyone's individual liberties.

Inevitably, though, our sense of unity is heightened when the very structures through which we cooperate are threatened, and this is what we are seeing today. We are all involved in trade everyday, but when the World Trade Center is attacked and destroyed we feel immediately how interrelated our productive lives are. We generally feel pride in our support for the armed forces that defend us against foreign aggressors, but when the Pentagon is attacked, we realize how important this common institution is to our freedom.

It should be of no surprise that when these institutions that provide for our security and prosperity are threatened that individuals come together to protect them, and that they do it well. Because of their abilities in their private lives—for example, their abundant self-responsibility and their initiative—these individuals have a great capacity to rise to the occasion and defend what is of great importance and value to them.

Those who see this as a pretext to seek unity on various political or social issues will find themselves disappointed. They will lash out once again at the individualistic culture. They will say that Americans should sacrifice for each other and feel more responsibility for each other. And they will be wrong. They will find that American unity is built on the individual's pursuit of values. A nation of individuals does not sacrifice for each other; individuals trade with each other in mutually beneficial ways. A nation of individuals does not seek to make every one responsible for each other; individuals are only responsible for themselves. And this is what makes us strong, and this is what makes us powerful, and this is what will make us victorious against an enemy that seeks the destruction of our way of life.

This article was originally published in the November 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

Shawn E. Klein
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Shawn E. Klein
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