The paradox of liberal individualism

  • Themes: Liberalism

We are more at liberty to think, say and do what we want than ever before. Yet, we are also more controlled and constrained by the state than at any other time in history. Why?

Aerial drone view of people skating.
Aerial drone view of people skating. Credit: ZGPhotography / Alamy Stock Photo

Today, western societies are defined by a curious paradox: we are both more free and more constrained than we have ever been.

It is surely the case that no other generation has been so freed from obligations as our own. We are more at liberty to think and say and do what we want – where and when we want – than ever before. Increasingly, only those commitments and relationships that we expressly consent to or voluntarily enter into are considered legitimate. In the popular cause of freeing the individual human from all limitations on the exercise of our will and volition, we are even seeking to transcend constraints that formerly presented themselves as immutable realities of existence. Stories of children desiring to self-identify as cats are most remarkable for the fact that so many people believe that one’s species might be considered a legitimate domain for choice and ‘free expression’.

Yet at the same time, we are also more controlled and constrained by the state than during any other historical epoch, at least in peacetime. In the UK, the tax burden in 2028 will be at a higher level than in any other year since the Second World War. The regulation of businesses, professionals, even schools and hospitals, is becoming stifling. Society is increasingly surveilled, and the state is penetrating deeper into the behaviour of private individuals and households. In the autumn of 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a ban on future generations from smoking cigarettes, while the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, has since voiced his support for supervised toothbrushing.

This is not a development peculiar to Britain. One US study suggests that, since 1997, the number of federal rules and restrictions has increased by around 20 per cent. In California, unconscious bias and harassment prevention training are now mandated by the state government for employees. Last year, 35 state legislatures brought forward bills aimed at banning books or restricting what people can read.

How can we become more and less ‘free’ at the same time? It is possible to come up with independent explanations for each of these developments, but how do we explain their simultaneity?

It might appear paradoxical that the zealous liberation of the individual is occurring at just the moment when the state seems increasingly pervasive. As Robert Nisbet once put it, however, some strange affinity exists between radical individual freedom and an expansive, intrusive state – an affinity based on a mutual hostility towards community, and specifically those that subsist between the individual and the impersonal state.

The liberal desire for extrication from the web of social relationships and associations that have defined human existence for centuries has its roots in the Enlightenment, where an image of man as rational, independent and self-interested came to define a particular strain of liberal thought. Membership of communities – of churches, of local parishes, of family – were correspondingly seen more and more as ‘irrational’ distractions, or impediments to individuals following the dictates of reason. Philosophically, this expression of a desire for the liberation of the rational individual is as old as Plato; but sociologically, its dominance in western society is a product of the early modern period.

This was also the period in which the modern state emerged as the preeminent political actor in the West. The state represented a new, unitary form of political authority. Its expansion was not merely territorial, but functional; the state came to take on various legal, judicial, economic and religious functions in society that had previously been assumed by other corporate bodies or associations. And its power was not merely ‘vertical’, as that of a ruler over the ruled, but ‘horizontal’, too, in that it increasingly formatted social relationships among and between men and women.

Just like the ideal of the absolutely liberated individual, the state’s structural relationship with other forms of community or association is fundamentally antagonistic: the latter constitute potential challenges to the state’s authority and thus ought to be demolished or co-opted. Thomas Hobbes, perhaps the most powerful proponent of the cold, social contract theory of the state’s relationship with the individual, described such forms of community as parasites – the ‘wormes in the entrayles of a naturall man’.

Though a radically different thinker to Hobbes in so many ways, Rousseau articulated a similar hostility to non-state forms of community in his own theory of the state. Church, family, parish – all of these social relationships could compromise the individual’s submission to the state and the general will. However divergent their politics, both Hobbes and Rousseau articulated a unitary vision of the state’s authority – one which vanquished all other forms of association that might make demands on the allegiances of the individual.

That these processes occurred at the same time is no coincidence; it was the state that generated the very conditions for the atomised, liberated individual to emerge. The state created entirely independent, rational and self-seeking individuals, shorn of other social obligations. Such characteristics do not come naturally to human-beings, despite what Hobbes and Rousseau might have said about a conjectural ‘state of nature’. Instead, they are wrought by ejecting people from the forms of association that are themselves natural to humans. The relationship between the radically free individual and the state is thus a symbiotic one, and it is hostile to other forms of association.

So what? Plenty of people would agree that the modern state has been the defining institution in the emancipation of the individual, and that this has indeed come at the expense of forms of associational and community life that are in some way pre-modern. Such is a price worth paying for progress.

The problem is that the liberation obtained for individuals by the state is inherently degenerative, a fact that various thinkers – often of a conservative disposition – have observed. For the social relationships in our lives, and the communities of which we are members, are not simply optional add-ons in our existence; they are an intrinsically important part of what it is to be human. They are the consequence of our basic desire for a shared identity, and for a sense of place. They give us purpose – a sense, in Roger Scruton’s words, of a first person plural, a ‘we’, to which we belong.

In seeking to eliminate these things, advocates of the progressive liberation of the individual seek hubristically to transcend human nature itself. Yet that desire for group membership, or the ‘quest for community’ as Nisbet calls it, cannot be transcended. And so the state seeks to fill the vacuum created through the erosion of other forms of community by meeting the individuals’ desire for belonging itself.

The state is often thought of as an outgrowth of community – a progression or development on from other forms of social relationship, such as the family, village or tribe. The state has developed in opposition to, and at the expense of, these forms of community. Its relationship to them is not one of a first among equals, but of a pathogen. The form of community it offers to otherwise deracinated and detached individuals is deeply inadequate: it is a cold, impersonal, and distant association, not one that stems from the basic instincts and sentiments of human beings.

At the same time, the forms of community that exist between the individual and the state – ‘mediating institutions’ as Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus have called them – have a particular role in maintaining social order that cannot be replicated by government. They render ‘power gentle, and obedience liberal’ in Burke’s words, and make authority more palatable to those subject to it. Without them, society is more brittle. Instead of a being comprised of people held together by social and communal bonds, it becomes a domain, in which atomised individuals clash and collide with each other, with little to mediate their interactions.

In those circumstances, a more expansive state is required to intervene to guarantee order. De Tocqueville contrasted a healthy society populated by numerous small-scale communities, with one containing a mass of increasingly lonely individuals, each of which solely concerned with the satisfaction of ‘petty and paltry pleasures’. A society comprised of such individuals would be dominated by ‘an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and watch over their fate’, much like a parent. Such a power would ‘everyday render the exercise of free agency… less useful and less frequent’ and would ‘cover the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules’. This type of power ‘does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannise, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd’.

Dogmatic individualism is thus ultimately self-defeating; it supposes that certain characteristics – autonomy, robustness, independence – are intrinsic and natural to humans, when such qualities require supportive social contexts to develop and take root. In its compulsive and reflexive desire to destroy associations and social relationships, liberal individualism renders us more dependent on an expansive state, undermining the very thing – liberty – that it sought to advance. This is the logical terminus of the ‘statist-individualist symbiosis’.

Many aspects of our society today can be made sense of by this symbiotic relationship between ideological individualism and the state.

Émile Durkheim wrote of the sense of alienation and listlessness, or ‘anomie’ that comes when proximate forms of community have been hollowed out, and when individuals are left bereft of those social bonds that previously gave them a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Which is why some people seem to have an almost fanatical commitment to particular impersonal organisations and groups. When other forms of community have been eroded, that desire for group belonging does not disappear. Instead, the political party, activist group or the state itself takes on immense significance for the individual – ‘such groups’, as Nisbet put it, ‘come to seem the very difference between membership and isolation, between hope and despair, between existence and non-existence’. One thinks of the people – young and old – who participate in Extinction Rebellion marches, or the almost religious deference paid to Britain’s National Health Service. These things offer the individual a sense of identity, when more rooted, tangible sources have begun to disappear.

Our society resembles more and more that which de Tocqueville warned of in the mid-19th century. We are less entrepreneurial as a society; less encumbered perhaps by duties and responsibilities, but also less independent and more passive; we pay more in taxes, but we are less charitable. And so, too, we have become more dependent on the state and its provisions: for our personal health, for childcare, for supporting our parents and grandparents in old age. We feel less of a sense of either trust or obligation towards others, and so we rely increasingly on the government to regulate our conduct with one another.

Above all else, we are more ‘liberated’, but we are also less purposeful and fulfilled. This is explained in large part by the fact that the state is intrinsically incapable of providing for the relational aspect of human nature as effectively as the more proximate forms of community that it seeks either to eliminate, or at least to make functionally irrelevant.

The debate on the political right today is ensnared in a misleading binary between those who believe that we are too burdened, and those who think we are too liberated. Between those who argue that competition, free exchange and prosperity are being quashed by the state, and those who feel that in our pursuit of absolute individual freedom we have eroded our social solidarity.

This is a misleading dichotomy. Rather like the economic phenomenon of stagflation, efforts to solve one part of this dilemma will exacerbate the other: the more we unmoor individuals from community membership, the more the state will aggrandise to compensate. The more the state aggrandises, the less space is left for genuine free agency.

The task of any genuinely conservative government in the present context then must be to support an increasing role for community and associational life at the expense of the state. In other words, we need to repatriate power directly from the state to communities, for it is through the restoration of community that we will create fertile social contexts for the genuinely independent, self-sufficient individuals – championed by conservatives and liberals – alike to emerge.

In seeking to reduce the size of the state, we will need to reduce the demand for its services. To ask the state to do less is implicitly to ask communities to do more: in the provision of education, childcare and support for the elderly; in the allocation of land use; in the decision-making of local areas. We need to restore the functional significance of communities in our society, and that will require us to think hard about the tasks the state could and should do, and those things that the state should not be responsible for.

There are those who argue that the state’s dominant role in society is a permanent development. That the arc of history bends a certain way, and that it bends towards an ever-growing state. These contentions and the historical fatalism they imply are wrong. It is not only possible to diffuse power away from the state, but necessary if our society is to remain both free and ordered. To do so might require tough choices about what the state ought to be for in the 21st century. They remain choices, nevertheless.

We need a ‘new philosophy of laissez-faire’, as Nisbet contended for, but it must be one that begins ‘not with the imaginary, abstract individual, but with personalities of human beings as they are actually given to us in association’. Such a philosophy might help conservatives to mount an effective assault on the statist-individualist symbiosis that is debilitating our society.


James Vitali