Is individualism adequate to sustain liberty and rein in government? This issue surfaced during the Republican primary debate last week in Las Vegas.
“This country has always put people in groups” and treated them accordingly, said Representative Ron Paul (R–TX). America needs to move away from this kind of “group mentality,” he says, toward a more individualistic perspective: “We need to see everybody as an individual. And to me, seeing everybody as an individual means their liberties are protected as individuals.”
While not disagreeing with the fact that government should protect the rights of individuals, former senator Rick Santorum (R–PA) took issue with Paul’s implication that “the country is founded on the individual.” Santorum argued, “The basic building block of a society is not an individual. It’s the family.”
It’s true that many rights belong to citizens as individuals. People don’t have the right to life and liberty, for example, only if they belong to some privileged group. Rather, God has endowed these rights to every single person as a unique individual with value and dignity.
But to leave the impression that rights-bearing individuals are islands unto themselves would be a mistake. That notion isn’t true to who we are as people, and it can actually lead to bigger government.
Everyone exists in some form of relationship to others. In fact, we become who we are—we develop our own unique habits and views—in the context of these relationships. We need to think of ourselves and others not merely as self-standing individuals but as persons in community.
And the most basic form of community is the family. Families and other community institutions are essential to human well-being. It’s in these local forms of association that we learn not only to respect rights but also to exercise responsibilities to others. If we seek to restore limited government, it’s important not to overlook the fact that much of our flourishing lies in the kinds of relationships fostered in civil society.
The more people feel that they can trust and rely upon each other, the less they will need to turn to government for care—or to remedy injustice. These interpersonal bonds can be weakened, though, when we overlook the significance of social relationships to individual thriving.
If we focus too narrowly on people’s individual autonomy, we’re less likely to foster a sense of responsibility for one another through family, church, and community, leaving individuals more likely to turn to the state to meet their needs. As a result, the social role of local, civil society institutions is more likely to give way to a federal government seeking to enlarge its influence. The expanding state and the stand-alone individual go hand in hand.
We should protect the rights of every single citizen—every “individual,” if you will. To achieve this goal, though, we have to see and treat the “rights-bearer” for what he or she truly is: a social being, a member of various communities and forms of association. That means taking families and faith communities more seriously when it comes to policy decisions.