In the present age of rampant consumerism, disordered families, broken communities and interest-driven politics, the individualist walks on unmoved; he is indifferent and self-absorbed. Indifferent because he doesn’t see anything wrong, he is instead absorbed in his own plans, tied to the realization of his self-directed goals. The individualist thinks that success is merely the realization of chosen ends; he is autonomy writ large, an attempted proof of the proposition that choice itself is the measure of all things.
This constitutes the new orthodoxy in America: individualism. It is a religion put into practice by many, often in ignorance, consisting in the sacrifice of all higher claims to the altar of choice.
Individualists claim that such doctrines represent the intent of America’s founding fathers. On the surface, they have a compelling case. The Declaration of Independence describes government as an artificial creation of man for the sole purpose of protecting individual rights. That the declaration echoes the social contract theory of John Locke is undeniable; it thereby asserts each man’s prerogative to enter and exit associations as he pleases.
The declaration, however, also includes elements of the prescriptive Judeo-Christian tradition inherited by the founders. This tradition emphasizes the concepts of divine providence, natural hierarchy and a respect for authority. It directly rejects the claim that the only natural authority consists in individual choice, and that authority over others is merely a construct created by an individual’s willing surrender of his own autonomy.
But the declaration is of two minds. While it begins by claiming that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed,” it concludes by entrusting its own government to “the protection of divine providence.” In other words, the declaration provides a purely individualistic theory for the foundation of just governments in general, but relies upon a specific cultural inheritance for the maintenance of justice in America.
The upshot is that the American government has rarely acted in a manner appropriate to strict contract theory. One example is particularly telling. Orestes Brownson, a 19th-century political philosopher, observed that contract theory could justify Southern secession. Under contract theory, Lincoln’s efforts to maintain the union would be illegitimate because these efforts infringed upon the free choice of the Southern states. But Brownson thought that Lincoln’s efforts were just.
Therefore, he pointed to the “unwritten constitution” of America, those inherited guidelines embedded in custom and tradition that made possible the just preservation of the nation. According to Brownson, the same “unwritten constitution” laid the groundwork for the founders to have “built better than they knew.” If they had tried to build a strictly individualistic nation, they had failed because of the strength of the Judeo-Christian tradition checking an individualistic government. Nevertheless, because the language of the declaration parallels Lockean theory, some infer an individualistic purpose in the founding.
Indeed, individualists who push strict contract theory with an appeal to the Declaration of Independence are in fact legitimizing a precondition for the failures of our age. Adherence to absolute autonomy necessarily entails the rejection of responsibility and the resultant capitulation to the passions. Overconsumption, divorce, hostility and greed are each the result of choice. Individualism cannot provide an argument against them.
It has been said that America is a nation distinctive because of her dedication to an idea. According to individualists, this foundational idea is autonomy. If the true American is defined exclusively by chosen contracts, associations and acts, the true America will be devoid of inherited institutions, a responsible citizenry and the cultural norms necessary to maintain a free and ordered society. A formless society would remain, anarchy would ensue, and the rise of despots and political planners would be near at hand.
Instead, we must maintain faith in the value of our cultural inheritance. Russell Kirk, a leader in the resurgence of intellectual conservatism in the 1950s, rightly claimed that “custom, convention and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.” Further, we must cling to belief in a transcendent order or a natural law. “True politics,” Kirk intoned, “is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.” Above all, we must assert the truth of higher claims against the false notion that that which is chosen is good.
In their interpretation of America’s founding doctrine, individualists substitute a destructive philosophy of unmitigated choice in place of the truly American concepts of inherited relationships, customary obligation, responsible citizenship and religious tradition. In response, we should accept one responsible choice: the rejection of individualism.
Peter Johnston is a freshman in Saybrook College.