Individualism is the core principle of liberal ideology. Liberalism is the ideology of the industrialised western world. It was the product of breakdown of feudalism and the rise, in its place, of a market or capitalist society. Early liberal ideology reflected the aspirations of a rising industrial middle class and became closely associated with the development of Capitalism.
Early or classical liberalism, which had started taking shape in the eighteenth century, emerged as a developed political creed in the early nineteenth century. Initially liberalism attacked absolute government and feudal privilege. An absolute government is one which possesses arbitrary and unlimited power while liberalism advocated constitutional government.
By the early nineteenth century a distinctively liberal economic doctrine had developed that supported laissez faire capitalism and condemned all forms of state intervention.
Individualism or the individualistic theory of state activity, identified with early liberalism, reflects a belief in the supreme importance of the individual as opposed to any social group or collective body. Human beings are seen primarily as individuals possessing separate and unique identities.
Hence, it becomes necessary to constitute a society within which individuals can flourish and develop, each pursuing ‘the good’ as she or he understands it, to the best of her or his abilities. It is argued that the individual is endowed with reason which enables her or him to find what is most conducive to his/her interests.
Individuals are considered to be proprietors of their own persons and capacities. They are largely self reliant creators owing nothing to other individuals or society. Hence, any kind of external constraint upon the individuals leading to interference in her or his liberty is not acceptable. This implies a deeply hostile attitude towards the state and all forms of government intervention.
Individualism asserts that individual’s freedom can be maximum if functions of the state are reduced to minimum. It champions the idea of ‘those state is the best which governs the least’. The individualistic theory considers protection of the individual from violence and fraud to be the sole duty of government.
The basic function of the state, hence, is to look after external and internal security and do police work so that in all other fields like industry, trade, education, art, science, sports, etc. the individual is given complete freedom and initiative. It is not the business of the state to look after welfare of the people. Common good of the society is best achieved if individuals have freedom to pursue their own interests.
Individualism advocates the policy of Laissez Faire, a French term, which means ‘leave alone’. It implies nonintervention by the state in the economic activities of the individuals. Industry and market must remain free from state control. It also regards the property rights of individuals as a necessary condition of liberty. The state simply has to guarantee enjoyment of property rights and enforce contracts.
It is no surprise that this theory considers the state as a ‘necessary evil’. It is ‘necessary’ because it establishes order and security and assures that contracts are enforced. Without the state the freedom of individuals cannot be safeguarded. It is ‘evil’ because it imposes regulations and restricts the freedom of individuals. Therefore, individualism favours a minimal or ‘night watchman’ state. Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer are some of the leading exponents of this theory.