Front Page Titles (by Subject) Individualism, Freedom, and Society - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Individualism, Freedom, and Society - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Individualism, Freedom, and Society
“De l'avenement de l'individu a la decouverte de la société.” Annales 34 (May-June 1979): 451–463.
“In the beginning were individuals, entities sufficient unto themselves, and, later, society, the result of their free association.” This individualist ideology, whereby society represents the willed order of autonomous human beings, has dominated Western social thought (Marxism not excepted) since the eighteenth century. With this new view, Western man effected a radical break with the traditionalist concept of social organization—an organic whole ordained by a god or gods in which the individual (even the sovereign) must humbly fulfill his predestined role.
Some social philosophers have viewed the rise of the individual and of the idea of the social contract as a debasement of the Western view of society, a new view based upon what is essentially a myth— that of the autonomous man, unmolded and uncoerced by the social environment that surrounds him. Prof. Gauchet, on the other hand, sees the development of this myth as having created conditions favorable to a much deeper understanding of social processes.
The traditional vision of social organization offers few mysteries to ponder. God's plan is clear, the roles of persons are fixed, and the State acts to preserve divinely ordained harmony on earth. In the eighteenth century, however, a new view evolved whereby the social order maintains itself spontaneously through the free and self-interested actions of autonomous individuals. Nowhere was this concept more evident than in the newly developed science of economics, where countless profit-motivated transactions maintained a stable and harmonious market.
Far from devaluing the importance of society, the market view introduced the notion of invisible social laws which, while operating through the actions of individuals, had positive effects far beyond their intentions and understanding. In effect, the myth of the individual gave birth to the idea of society as a problematical servo-mechanism, whose operations could only be fathomed by serious and toilsome study. It is therefore not surprising that, along with economics, the science of sociology traces its roots back into the eighteenth century. A seeming paradox, the concept of Society grew immeasurably in depth and importance through the evolving ideal of the autonomous individual.
The new conceptualization of social factors also had an unexpected influence on the political element in Western civilization. Once again, the catalyst for this change was the concept of the individual.
The nation-state, a totally original Western contribution to the field of territorial administration, bases itself upon the notion of autonomous and equal citizenunits. In contrast, the traditional state established its legitimacy upon a metaphysical hierarchy of subordination. Nonetheless, the old hierarchical view often acted as a check on the powers of the State. With its demise, there has arisen a vast governmental bureaucracy with virtually unlimited power, whose stated function is to protect the free market and the freedoms of individuals.
The modern state has carefully nurtured the idea that the individual need not submit to an overweening social order. Indeed, it has allowed him the feeling that he is totally autonomous, no longer a member of a social whole. In doing so, however, the State has acquired an administrative hegemony undreamed of in former centuries. Thus, while seemingly freeing themselves from the constraints of social, power, “individuals” have, in fact, become (more than ever) subject to social coercion.