*Individualism- is a moral, political, and social philosophy, which emphasizes individual liberty, the primary importance of the individual, and the "virtues of self-reliance" and "personal independence". Individualism embraces opposition to authority, and to all manner of controls over the individual, especially when exercised by the political state or "society." It is thus directly opposed to collectivism, which advocates subordination of the individual to the will of the society or community. It is often confused with "egoism," but an individualist need not be an egoist.
In political philosophy, the individualist theory of government holds that the state should take a merely defensive role by protecting the liberty of each individual to act as he wishes as long he does not infringe on the same liberty of another. This contrasts with collectivist political theories, where, rather than leaving the individual to pursue his own ends, the state ensures that the individual serves the interests of society when taken as a whole. It also contrasts with fascism, where the individual is required to serve the interests of the state. The term has also been used to describe "individual initiative" and "freedom of the individual" in general, perhaps best described by the French term "laissez faire," a verb meaning "to let [the people] do" [for themselves what they know how to do].
In practice, individualists are chiefly concerned with protecting individual autonomy by opposing encroachment by the state. They pay particular attention to protecting the liberties of the minority against transgressions by the majority and see the individual as the smallest minority. For example, individualists oppose democratic systems unless constitutional protections exist that preserve individual liberty of individuals from being diminished by the interests of the majority. These concerns encompass both civil and economic liberties. One typical concern is the concentration of commercial and industrial enterprise in the hands of the state, and the municipality. The principles upon which this opposition is based are mainly two: that popularly-elected representatives are not likely to have the qualifications, or the sense of responsibility, required for dealing with the multitudinous enterprises, and the large sums of public money involved in civic administration; and that the "health of the state" depends upon the exertions of individuals for their personal benefit (who, "like cells", are the containers of the life of the body). Individualism may take a radicalist approach, as in individualist anarchism.
The individualist sees society as "a large number of individuals working together" to improve their individual and collective welfare. The single person is not just a member of a greater unity. In fact, the single individual is seen as "the ultimate unity," and society is nothing more than a composition of these "individuals". The "state" is an organized form of society, which "ensures the individual's freedom" by law (under the protections of a republic). Thus, individualist policy tends to approve laws that protect, or otherwise enhance the liberties of the individual citizen, but rejects laws that subordinate the individual to the collective.
**Individualism and society**
Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "social contract" maintains that each individual is under implicit contract to submit his own will to the "general will." This advocacy of subordinating the individual will to a collective will is in fundamental opposition to the individualist philosophy. An individualist enters into society to further his own interests, or at least demands the right to serve his own interests, without taking the interests of society into consideration (an individualist need not be an egoist). The individualist does not lend credence to any philosophy that requires the sacrifice of the self-interest of the individual for any "higher" social causes.
Societies and groups can differ, in the extent to which they are based upon predominantly "self-regarding" (individualistic, and arguably self-interested) rather than "other-regarding" (group-oriented, and group, or society-minded) behaviour. There is also a distinction, relevant in this context, between "guilt" societies (e.g. medieval Europe) with an "internal reference standard", and "shame" societies (e.g. Japan, "bringing shame upon one's ancestors") with an "external reference standard", where people look to their peers for feedback, as to whether an action is "acceptable" or not (also known as "group-think").
The extent to which society, or groups are "individualistic" can vary from time to time, and from country to country. For example, Japanese society is more group-oriented (e.g. decisions tend to be taken by consensus among groups, rather than by individuals), and it has been argued that "personalities are less developed" (than is usual in the West). The USA is usually thought of as being at the individualistic (its detractors would say "atomistic") "end of the spectrum", whereas European societies are more inclined to believe in "public-spiritedness", state "socialistic" spending, and in "public" initiatives.
John Kenneth Galbraith made a classic distinction between "private affluence and public squalor" in the USA, and private squalor and public affluence in, for example, Europe, and there is a correlation between individualism and degrees of public sector intervention and taxation.
Individualism is often contrasted with either totalitarianism or collectivism, but in fact there is a spectrum of behaviours ranging at the societal level from highly individualistic societies (e.g. the USA) through mixed societies (a term the UK has used in the post-World War II period) to collectivist. Also, many collectivists (particularly supporters of anarchism or libertarian socialism) point to the enormous differences between liberty-minded collectivism and totalitarian practices.
Individualism, sometimes closely associated with certain variants of individualist anarchism, libertarianism or classical liberalism, typically takes it for granted that individuals know best and that public authority or society has the right to interfere in the person's decision-making process only when a very compelling need to do so arises (and maybe not even in those circumstances). This type of argument is often observed in relation to policy debates regarding regulation of industries.
The doctrine of economic individualism holds that each individual should be allowed autonomy in making his own economic decisions as opposed to those decisions being made by the state, or the community, for him. Morever, it supports the liberty of individuals to own property as opposed to state or collective arrangements. Such an economic system is often called laissez-faire or capitalism.
Critics of modern capitalism sometimes argue that capitalism is not based on individuals but largely on firms and institutions, and that individuals' roles are largely determined by these institutions. However, compared to various forms of political collectivism, capitalism is usually still considered as individualistic since participation in these institutions is voluntary and an individual choice. Yet, capitalism can also thrive in certain collectivistic societies with individual choice. The only difference is what the choice is based on: individual need versus collective need.
**Individualism and US history**
At the time of the formation of the United States, many of its citizens had fled from state or religious oppression in Europe and were influenced by the egalitarian and fraternal ideals that later found expression in the French revolution. Such ideas influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution (the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans) who believed that the government should seek to protect individual rights in the constitution itself; this idea later led to the Bill of Rights.
Individualism has negative connotations in certain societies and environments where it is associated with selfishness. For example, individualism is highly frowned upon in Japan where self-interested behavior is traditionally regarded as a kind of betrayal of those to whom one has obligations (e.g. family and firm). The absence of universal health care in the United States, which traces back to a belief in individual (rather than societal) responsibility, is widely criticised in Europe and other countries where universal health care (usually funded through general taxation) is seen as protecting individuals from the vagaries of health problems. Health care in the United States is provided through private insurance. Some people who cannot afford health insurance in the United States are eligible for Medicaid, a government-sponsored program. Medicare is generally only available to those who are disabled and to single mothers (and their children). Not all doctors will accept medicare, typically just doctors in poor areas of the country who might have a large number of Medicare patients.
Proponents of such public initiatives and social responsibility argue that their policies are beneficial for the individual, and that excessive individualism may actually hurt the individuals themselves. Opponents hold that such public initiatives may have unintended consequences beyond the issues they are intended to address. Many individualists find the "beneficial to the individual" argument repugnant and argue that individualism is not about individual benefit so much as individual choice.