Flaws Within Individualism

No Man is an Island

Recently we read excerpts from William Sumner’s What Social Classes Owe to Each Other and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. While reading Sumner, I found myself very discomforted. Originally, I wasn’t quite sure why, as the basic idea presented in the essay – that a laissez-faire social doctrine would effectively solve many of the world’s problems – is appealing on the surface level. Upon closer examination, however, there is a current of social Darwinism that runs throughout the essay, suggesting wholly unpleasant and long since discredited conclusions about how society is meant to function. The implicit answer Sumner’s presents is that the social classes owe each other nothing, a belief that can too easily be used to ignore the plight of those in the world who would genuinely benefit from help. That said, while I personally disagree with the conclusions, Sumner is exceptional and I would consider this essay be interesting and relevant read for today’s world. 


The SpaceX Team shows that genius is carried out as a group, not as an individual

The Fountainhead, on the other hand, is abjectly horrifying; Rand’s writing reads as nothing more than a power fantasy. The mindset that Rand pushes in The Fountainhead smugly establishes that society is holding back the true geniuses from expressing themselves. You, the reader, are clearly pushed to think that the genius being held back from achieving greatness is of course you, and thus are inclined to support this idea. This simply isn’t the case in society today; visionaries succeed and continue to succeed in the world: Elon Musk continues to push space travel to new frontiers, Sergey Brin and Larry Page built Google, Kanye West (Personal life notwithstanding) reinvents hip hop with just about everything he does. Even then, arguably the most important thing to take away from these modern visionaries is that they all required other people to assist them and contribute to a creation. The modern success story is one that features tens and hundreds of people working to create a single vision. The real world utterly rejects Rand’s individualist mindset by demonstrating the power of people working in groups to create something that betters society. These people don’t create in a vacuum, they work with others and with what others have already made, and in doing so demonstrate a way for society to progress as a collective rather than as individuals.

Inevitable Conclusions

After consideration of the works of Sumner and Rand, I eventually concluded that my own problems with the Classical Liberal worldview arise from the fact that the eventual conclusion of the Classic Liberal belief of individualism seems to be either a form of Libertarianism or Objectivism. I find both of these ideologies abjectly horrifying. Objectivism has been largely discredited by philosophers, so I’ll ignore that specific branch and instead focus on the broader issues with the Libertarian issue. To bring this into today’s world, let’s look at the Libertarian Party. Due to Donald Trump’s divisive nature, the Libertarian Party has taken an opportunity to attempt to enter into the national stage. This is the party that most embodies the laissez-faire social doctrine promoted by Sumner and Rand, and its ideals are nothing short of a train wreck. According to their party platform, Libertarians want to eliminate public education (Considered a right by the United Nations), deregulate the finance sector (Which in part caused Great Recession), and want to eliminate the income tax (The elimination of which has been shown to reduce social mobility). That’s not to say that the Libertarian Party is without merit – indeed many of the positions held by the Libertarian Party could be seen as extremely progressive – but rather demonstrates the inherent insanity in fully adopting the Classical Liberal mindset in today’s world. There is certainly value in finding purpose and meaning from oneself,  but to take it a step further and propose that society should be set to benefit the individual is to ignore the benefits everybody currently reaps in a world with a more hands-on approach to governance. We all benefit from acting in the best interests of each other, and thus the best way for the individual to succeed is to take part in what society has created. To quote President Obama, “We succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

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4 Responses to Flaws Within Individualism

  1. Alex Corella says:

    I completely agree with your conclusions and analysis of Libertarianism. What a lot of free market ideologues don’t realize is that Capitalism failed in 2008 to the degree that Communism failed in 89, but so much is dependent on the West and so much of the world economy is dependent on the US that we had to enact some pretty hard socialism to save the world economy. At least that was the logic, but we will never know what would’ve happened if the US were true capitalist and let the banks fail. With that said, your complete rejection behind Objectivism is pretty ignorant. Not it’s conclusions, because it does conclude that a social Darwinist, laissez-faire world is the “state of nature,” but it’s base is pretty sound. Firstly, Objectivism isn’t 𝘸𝘳𝘰𝘯𝘨 in that the world is a chaotic power grab, but like the table example our professor gave in class, it’s not right either. It’s a mixture of a lot of different philosophies, one being Renee Descartes “I think therefore I am,” seeing as the whole idea behind the philosophy is that consciousness and perception aren’t wholly connected, and that we as humans can only take our senses at face value since we really don’t know if we’re not in an insane asylum or in a computer program with 100% certainty. Moreover, much of the base of her philosophy, not her conclusions, is intellectual honesty. Instead of saying that there are things we perceive vs things that exist, she says that there are only things we perceive because we can’t say for certain that they exist without our recognition. Much like quantum physics. From here, she reaches her conclusion that because it’s impossible to be completely intellectually honest while questioning our senses, however it’s just as dishonest to assume that things exist without identity or recognition. Instead of leaving philosophy at an impasse, since this is the end point to philosophy without taking a leap of faith in my view, she chooses to accept the world that she’s in and instead use systems of reasoning to shape her perception. However the huge flaw is that when it comes to morality, she still uses her happiness as the standard, much like John Stewart Mill, and projects her own feelings of Darwinism. Again, she’s not 𝘸𝘳𝘰𝘯𝘨, and just like every other philosophy, it’s not right either.

  2. I really enjoyed your post, as I have to agree with most of the arguments you proposed. While my analysis over the Libertarian party does remain pretty consistent with yours, I would not go as far as to consider that the adoption of a wholly Classic Liberal mindset as complete insanity. Well, I suppose you could, but one could also argue that a full-fledged conservative might operate on the same level of insanity. Similarly, I don’t think it would be plausible for any extreme end of a party to operate functionally anyway without completely uprooting and destroying the progress we have made economically, educationally, etc. In response to your message about the flaws of individualism, I applaud you. Specifically, In the The Fountainhead, Rand only analyzes the power of individual success while completely disregarding the fact that success doesn’t necessarily have a specific beginning and ending. It is the buildup of years of research and information gathered from our world and the minds of others that have ultimately contributed to the ability of individual empowerment. I think it is very ignorant of Rand to recognize and assume that the achievements made in this world only had one face to them. Like you explained, his thinking is very idealistic, if anything, and lacks any grounded logic.

  3. offthewals says:

    You have some good points; however, I have to disagree with your opinion of Sumner’s work. To completely discredit the laissez faire social doctrine is entirely out of line especially given that the principal concepts behind the original economy of the United States were founded on it. I do agree that it would be easy for those of a higher class to ignore those in lower classes and that it is wrong to stand by and do nothing, but I don’t believe that this notion justifies sacrificing (by law through taxation for government aid) one’s earnings for someone in a less appealing position. In my opinion, Sumner evaluated social standing from a very logical perspective and eloquently defined his ideas. Rand, on the other hand, is an extremist. Despite this, she does maintain a few valid points. Individuals can progress much faster than a collective, but many times a problem calls for the viewpoint of a collective as opposed to the individual.

  4. prestonmarshall says:

    One man’s opinion: The point of individualism isn’t necessarily to shun away from society; even Emerson needed to get groceries. Individualism is to prevent people from “conforming” with the whole, because an angry group formed out of sheer conformity is a stupid one as well. And yes, Rand does take the concept too far with objectivism (you watch your hometown get blown up by a tyrannical ass who praises the ideals of socialism and communism), but there’s a silver lining in her point. Do you not think that there are people who are held back in society, simply because they don’t wish to be mocked by their fellow man? That’s one of the biggest route issues that Rand, Sumner, and even Emerson in other readings try to tackle. Is individualism really that bad? All those men you listed above have rather big egos and have made leaps for man. Do they really care what we think? Did they ever? I’d be amazed if they did.

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