The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Three Cheers for Individualism

Individualism is often attacked by the Left, but it’s the Right who should worry the most. Individualism increases secularism and tolerance.

Consider a Christian Science Monitor article on the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Southern Baptists declined in membership by 1.32 percent, marking the ninth decrease in a row. This trend is neither new nor unique, however. The SBC could be merely one more organization feeling adverse impacts from a shift toward individualism that is hitting organizations and churches across the United States and Europe.

‘As individualism becomes a more central part of our lives … people are less likely to do things that are socially constraining,’ Ryne Sherman, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University who has conducted research on trends in American religiosity, tells The Christian Science Monitor. ‘It’s “I’m free to choose and do what I want,” versus a group compelling me to go out and do something.’”

Psychology professor Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University says increased individualism is pushing people away from religion. “Of course, there are many other possible causes as well — technology, cynicism, lack of respect for institutions, beliefs that religion is anti-gay, and so on. Yet I would argue that many of these are rooted in individualism as well — cultures that value equality and tolerance, for example, are more likely to be individualistic.” I would argue the opposite, cultures that individualistic value equality and tolerance.

Twenge wrote:

The increase in tolerance co-occurred with increases in individualistic beliefs such as rejecting traditional social rules around gender, race, religion, sexuality, and drug use. At the group level, tolerance was higher in years with more individualistic language in books and a higher need for uniqueness. These analyses cannot infer causation, but these results are consistent with our hypothesis that increasingly individualistic attitudes may be one cause of increasing tolerance for outgroups.”

This isn’t just true for Christian nations. A study in Tunisia found there has been “an increase in support for social individualism” along with “a decline in support for political Islam, a significant increase in preference for Western-style democratic government and an increase in religious tolerance.”

Ireland went through a similar revolution. Ireland, according to Seán Ó’Riain’s The Rise and Fall of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, was in crisis, with “massive government debt accompanied by severe unemployment, immigration and weak labour force participation among women.” But a series of liberalizing market reforms led to “rapid economic growth and, even more significantly, exceptionally high employment growth in the second half of the decade. The numbers employed in Ireland almost doubled between 1988 and 2008, increasing by one million jobs.”

As has happened in numerous nations, with the rise of economic prosperity through economic liberalism came an increase in individualism and with it rising levels of social tolerance.

It was the Financial Times that noted the role of material wealth on social liberalism. They wrote, “Ireland’s apparent willingness to embrace gay marriage is therefore as much a product of the Celtic Tiger years as it is a reflection of the decline of the Church’s influence.” With rising prosperity, Irish voters started embracing socially liberal reforms, matching the economically liberal reforms of a few years earlier: deregulation and more individual choice. Women demanded and won liberalization of contraception laws and legalization of divorce. Sociologist Tom Inglis said of Ireland, “[W]e have all signed up for cultural liberal individualism and a laissez faire approach to civil rights.”

Milton Friedman wrote that an economic market “permits wide diversity” while politics “tends to require or enforce substantial conformity. The British socialist Evan Luard thought “ collective power is also conservative because within the democratic system, political parties and leaders are obliged to converge to a point near the average views of the majority… Because the majority are rarely in favor of important or imaginative changes, this inhibits any radical challenge to the status quo.”

But, in markets producers have incentives to meet the needs of people who are being ignored—those outside the mainstream, those who may not conform. So, we saw gay bars created even when it illegal to be gay, and the result was a gay rights movement. Rising economic prosperity cause individuals to seek self-fulfillment, or what Abraham Maslow called “higher order needs.” They seek to become individuals.

With the rise of individualism there is increasing diversity. As more and more people show how they differ from others people learn to accept difference and tolerance flourishes.

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