The Real Paradox of Individualism

The Real Paradox of Individualism September 23, 2013


In contemporary American political discourse, there are two poles of authority and power: the individual and the state. Their relationship is inverse and antagonistic; as one waxes, the other wanes. Thus, our world is split conceptually between the realm of state authority and the realm of individual autonomy, and politics is the working-out of the boundary between the two. Politicians may pay lip service to concepts such as “family” and “community,” but ultimately the individual-state bipolar scheme is buttressed by the rhetoric of both economic libertarianism and sexual liberation, among other popular philosophies. We are steeped in it, whether we like it or not.

This analysis provides the conceptual framework in which to consider an essay by Rutgers Law Professor Mark S. Weiner in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “The Paradox of Individualism.” It’s an essay with much to offer, both in what it gets right and what it gets wrong.

First, though, let’s begin with another stipulation. One of the primary goals of a liberal society, for better or for worse, is to maximize individual autonomy. As Weiner puts it, “[Liberal individualism] rightly views personal autonomy as among the highest human goods—and justified by natural law.” Freedom is, moreover, a necessary condition for moral action by individuals. And so the question for liberalism is, how do we minimize the likelihood that individuals’ actions will be limited or dictated by coercion?

Weiner’s primary thesis, from which the title of his essay emerges, is a challenge to libertarians of both the right and the left, but particularly to that peculiar brand of individualist conservatism that motivates political actors from Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform to the insurgency broadly labeled the “Tea Party” movement. It also happens to be conceptually correct.

It runs like this: if we think of society solely or even primarily in terms of individuals and the state, the two concepts will necessarily collapse into one another. A society made up only of atomized individuals will require a robust state in order to ensure some measure of autonomy and to keep order. Weiner puts that “paradox” this way: “But in practice [individual] autonomy is possible only through the unnatural institution of the state… It is a healthy state, dedicated to the public interest, that makes the kind of freedom justified by universal reason and human dignity possible.”

Why so? Because, in the absence of a robust state, Weiner predicts a future in which individuals are under the thumb of “extended families,” “religious organizations,” “militant trade unions and guilds,” “racial gangs and crime syndicates,” and “transnational corporations.” The problems created by these clans begin with restrictions of autonomy, and continue to exclusive provision of services and institutional self-serving:

Whereas the state once provided its many goods to individuals as individuals, these groups afford them to their members only. And they are guided not by the abstract ideals of the public good and the inherent rights of the individual but rather by the practical needs of their organizations and by the internal hierarchies within them.

We can fairly distill this critique into the following: the “rule of the clan” places significant power into the hands of institutions and leaders outside the purview of the state, and this power will be corrupting, leading to misuse and abuse.

The problem, then, is power. Power limits autonomy, and power corrupts. But why should we be less suspicious of the state than of the clannish institutions of civil society? There are plenty of examples of non-state institutions acting in the public interest, just as there are examples of government being corrupted by private and parochial interests. Weiner appeals to concepts such as the “inherent rights of the individual,” but what in our history suggests that the state can be trusted to act on principle, especially compared to the institutions of civil society? Whom do Americans trust more: the federal government or their local Rotary?

For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that all institutions and associations, from the family all the way up to national bureaucracies, are equally suspicious loci of power. Recognizing this, how do we clear out as much space as possible for individual autonomy?

The fundamental error of contemporary political discourse is the elimination of civil society as a source of structure, authority, and power. Civil society consists of the diversity of associations—family, guild, charity, club— into which people naturally organize themselves if free to do so. For the famous sociologist of community Robert Nisbet, and the traditionalists who take after his thought, it is from here that social dynamism and solidarity springs. More than that, following an anthropological tradition going back to Aristotle, these traditionalists understand mankind as a social creature that will relentlessly seek out the meaning and security that can only be found in community. The interlocking matrices of authority and power inherent in organic, thriving civil society provide the surest bulwarks against the metastasis of the state.

Weiner presents an impoverished and unconvincing account of civil society, which he reduces to above-mentioned “rule of the clan,” described as “the antiliberal social and legal organizations that tend to grow in the absence of state authority or when the state is weak.” Weiner’s account lacks the imagination to conjure a multiplicity of sociopolitical organizations, instead relying on a Manichean distinction between the “healthy state” and quasi-anarchy that he compares to Afghanistan, Yemen, and post-Soviet Central Asia. His unwillingness to present even a single beneficent example of an institution of civil society—even though the past and present are overflowing with examples—leads one to question the seriousness of his critique.

His account of the robust state as the unitary source of power and authority, moreover, reminds one of nothing so much as Rousseau’s infamous formulation from The Social Contract that the people shall be “forced to be free.” For in what does the autonomy promised by Weiner’s state actually consist? Lacking any practical limiting factor, such as grappling with competing sources of power and authority, it is only whatever freedom is graciously granted by the state.

Freedom, then, is always contingent on the continued goodwill of the state. Even when the state is sincerely pursuing autonomy and the “inherent rights of the individual,” though, without legitimate competing poles of power and authority, that pursuit is likely to manifest itself as the steamrolling of dissent from faddish definitions of those abstract concepts. If the state fashions itself as the only legitimate preserver and protector of the liberal project, then the people will (must!) acquiesce to the gathering of powers and privileges to fulfill that sacred charge.


Nisbet describes this conception of unitary power thus: “It is power of this type—not merely absolute but often bland, providential, minute, and sealing—that has reduced so many of the social and cultural frictions that cultural advancement has depended upon, historically; that even intellectual energy depends upon.” A key word here that points toward the superiority of a diversity of social poles of power and authority, and that demands some unpacking, is “sealing.”

Natural human society isn’t the broad, flat, limitless and featureless landscape promised by Weiner (which he admits is “unnatural”). Rather it is a craggy and irregular terrain, with layers of cultural sediment built up diversely and unequally through time. There are summits of authority, and fissures in which creativity bubbles, like the proverbial primordial soup. Nisbet describes these fissures as “the interstices within which creativity and freedom thrive.” These unpredictable sources of emergent ideas and authorities threaten the unitary state, and thus are filled in, or sealed.

The continuing existence of these fissures depends on the existence of a diversity of powers. If power is to be suspected, as we have every reason to believe it must, then the solution must not be to centralize it, but to pit it against itself. Nisbet argues that,

But from the point of view of the real, the historical roots of liberal democracy, freedom has rested neither upon release nor upon collectivization but upon the diversification and the decentralization of power in society. In the division of authority and the multiplication of its sources lie the most enduring conditions of freedom. “The only safeguard against power,” warned Montesquieu, “is rival power.”

These rivalries will manifest themselves, as any observer of local politics knows, in frustrating conflicts both petty and substantial. But it is precisely this frustration—frustration of the coercive power latent in all authorities—that recommends this social and political vision.

The problem, then, with Weiner’s thesis that individualism and statism are not the mortal enemies of popular political imagination is not that it is wrong, but that it doesn’t go far enough. The “paradox of individualism” is deeper, and goes like this: the way to ensure maximum individual autonomy is, in fact, not to aim directly for individual autonomy at all. For in “liberating” individuals from the natural, craggy collection of authorities that make up civil society, we make them susceptible to the inescapable and irresistible power of the unitary state. In trying to ensure maximal expression of the individual talents and eccentricities that make human life so interesting, we end up submitting to a bland power that seeks to level difference, not embrace it.

Rather, the direct aim of a society that seeks individual autonomy should be at a thriving, dynamic, organic civil society. It is here where multiplicities of authorities and allegiances allow for the construction of authentic individual identities, while frustrating the latent coercive power that would subsume those identities. It is here where people are not “forced to be free,” but can live in genuine freedom, together.

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