Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Concept of Individualism - Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850
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The Concept of Individualism - Frédéric Bastiat, Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850, Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. Translated from the French by Jane Willems and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Pascal Salin. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation Editor Dennis O’Keeffe. Academic Editor, David M. Hart (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012).
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The Concept of Individualism
In nineteeth-century France the word individualism had strong negative connotations, and Bastiat seemed to share some of the contemporary reservations about embracing the term to describe his own philosophy.17 Nevertheless, by the end of the century he was definitely categorized by his free-market heirs as one of the leading members of the French school of individualism.
The term individualism was coined by conservative counterrevolutionary theorists in the early nineteenth century to criticize the Enlightenment’s overemphasis on the rights of individuals at the expense of crown, church, and community. This idea had manifested itself, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre believed, in the excesses of the French Revolution and had also been taken up by Saint-Simon and other French socialist thinkers in the 1820s and 1830s in order to contrast the more “socially responsible” rule by a technocratic elite (Saint-Simon) or by “the people” themselves (Louis Blanc) with the economic and political order created by the free market, in which individuals subordinated all broader social concerns to their own narrow selfish interests.
Many French free-market political economists were aware of the writings of Adam Smith and other members of the Scottish Enlightenment, who argued that the reverse was in fact the case: that human beings were naturally sociable and that their search for private benefits resulted in the creation of public benefits (Bernard de Mandeville) as if “an invisible hand” (Adam Smith) were guiding their activity. This more-positive view of individualism (even though Bastiat was wary of directly adopting the word) lies at the heart of his notion of “economic harmony,” which was the title of his magnum opus (Economic Harmonies). Bastiat rejected the idea that there were only three means by which society could be organized: authority (of the church and the state), individualism, or fraternity (under socialism). The proper distinction according to Bastiat was between coerced association (whether by church or state or by “the people”) and voluntary association (which lay at the heart of his idea of the free market).
Liberal conservatives, on the other hand, like Alexis de Tocqueville writing in the late 1830s, worried that the democracy unfolding in America would result in a form of individualism that would weaken the ability of intermediate institutions to reduce its deleterious effects. Later in the century attitudes to individualism had changed significantly. In the entry on “Individualism” in the Nouveau dictionnaire de économie politique (1891–92), a clear distinction is made between “egoism” (which is rejected) and “individualism” (which was a legitimate reaction against socialism, militarism, and statism). Among the individualists the author mentioned approvingly were Wilhelm von Humboldt, Böhm-Bawerk, Karl Menger, Eugen Richter from the Austro-German school; Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Henry Sumner Maine from the Anglo-Scottish school; and Jean-Baptiste Say, Charles Dunoyer, Gustave de Molinari, and of course Bastiat from the French school.18
[17. ]See Lukes, Key Concepts in the Social Sciences: Individualism; and Schatz, L’Individualisme économique et social.
[18. ]Bouctot, “Individualisme,” in Nouveau dictionnaire de économie politique, vol. 2, pp. 64–66.