Individualism root of revolution

By Tibor Machan: FNM columnist

The idea that sound revolutions rest on the past may appear to be an oxymoron, but it isn’t. The seeds of a sound revolution do not come out of a vacuum.

Although the American Founders did upend the previous practice of entrusting countries into the hands of monarchs, czars and other potential despots, the roots of the individualism with which they achieved this were already in place.

It all came out of the idea of personal responsibility, something the ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle embraced and championed. There was, however, a disjoint afoot.

Only ethics, the concern about how persons ought to act, was influenced significantly by the notion, not politics. At least not much of it. The morally virtuous life championed by these thinkers had been individualist — after all, to be morally virtuous had to be something that individuals had to choose. There is no ethical life without choice.

Aristotle, who is often said to have been a kind of communitarian in his politics was, in fact, an individualist when it came to ethics. Moral virtues depend for their practice on individuals thinking and acting right. Being forced to be virtuous is indeed an oxymoron — ethics presupposes free choice, a free will on the part of the agent.

But while this ethical individualism had been strongly suggested way back then, the corresponding political individualism lagged behind. One may assume this to have been one result of, among other things, a great deal of tribal thinking — people tended to worry mostly about their group’s survival, which was the main if not only approach to personal survival.

And the ethical demands placed on people were already substantially individualistic — they were responsible personally, as individuals ultimately, to do the right thing and blameworthy if they failed to do it.

However, this came into conflict with the demands of politics, which often put citizens into a position of subservience.

Nonetheless, this element of ethical individualism eventually bloomed into the social and political individualism the American Founders laid down as the foundation of their new country. Yes, it was revolutionary; no, it wasn’t without earlier philosophical foundations.

The problem is the political collectivism of the past keeps resurfacing whenever people turn to politics, especially in scary times like now. The teachings of the Founders haven’t managed to thoroughly sink in, so that many people still believe politics cannot be individualistic especially in times of trouble.

Many misguidedly think in scary times solutions have to be socialist, communitarian, social democratic or some other modern version of collectivist.

Still, over time, the individualist, classical liberal political economy has shown it really is the best way to handle problems of human community life. The public good is indeed what the American Founders believed, the protection of the basic rights of individuals.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: