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Individualism left and right

One of the things that I have been thinking about a bit over the last few years is the balance between individualism and collectivism in Western culture. It is common to talk about the West as an individualistic culture compared to cultures that are more focused on the honour of the family and one’s role and contribution within that, rather than on one’s own fulfilment as an individual. In this sense, the West is very individualistic.

But I also see charges from those more on the right-wing of politics that those on the left-wing are overly individualistic. It is an interesting charge when one considers that ‘right’ and ‘left’ traditionally refer to economic rather than social policy, and that it is the left-wing that has always been, by definition, more collectivist when it comes to economic policy. So seeing this debate, on individualism in the West, makes me reflect on the different ways in which one might be individualist and how that aligns with different political leanings.

I am not a trained social academic so I don’t claim to use terms like ‘individualist’, ‘collectivist’, ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘progressive’, ‘libertarian’ or ‘conservative’ with proper academic accuracy. I speak from a lay perspective and apologise for the extent to which my language muddies rather than clarifies the waters. I hope to avoid using academic terms and instead to explain my meanings – to use definitions, rather than the specific words associated with them.

My own usages of these political terms stem largely from the ‘Political Compass’, a system which positions people not just on the economic spectrum but also on the social spectrum. The creators of the Political Compass say that:

“Our essential point is that Left and Right, although far from obsolete, are essentially a measure of economics. As political establishments adopt either enthusiastically or reluctantly the prevailing economic orthodoxy — the neo-liberal strain of capitalism — the Left-Right division between mainstream parties becomes increasingly blurred. Instead, party differences tend to be more about identity issues. In the narrowing debate, our social scale is more crucial than ever.”[1]

Roughly speaking, one may say that a person’s economic position lies on a spectrum from full state control to complete individual autonomy. To my mind, this leaves off communism, because strictly speaking communism sees everything under the power of the community and there is no government as such (countries labelled ‘communist’ by those who fear communism are more often socially authoritarian with state control of what would otherwise be private industry, which is a far cry from what many on the left in the UK or US actually want, particularly when these socialists are also socially libertarian).

A person on the left wants more state intervention and control. They may want to see public services such as healthcare, education, public transport, the judiciary and criminal systems, social care and social security under government provision and not out-sourced to the private sector. Someone even further to the left may want to see industries like steel and farming brought under government control; this is not a position I have seen anywhere in the mainstream. These people may be more ready, in times of public crisis like war or pandemic or famine, to see the government step in to directly manage the economy and society for the good of the nation.

On the right are people who want less state involvement. These people may like to see ostensibly public services provided by the private sector. They may prefer to have private companies be paid by government to perform public roles such as assessing people’s fitness for work, providing health or social care, or running prisons and probationary services. Further right, they may want the government to stop spending on these issues at all and instead have individual people pay for the services they need at the point of needing them. Right-wing policies also call for less regulation, so for example high-rise towers would be built with flammable cladding; smoking would be permitted in indoors public spaces; pay-day lenders can charge whatever they want; wages can drop as low as the employer wants; and industry does not have to remedy any environmental harm it causes. On the very far right, there would be no rules and no government at all. This contrasts with communism in that instead of everyone working and deciding together as a collective, every person simply does as he or she wishes with no regard for anyone else. This position is not taken by many people; Ayn Rand being a notable exception.

It is probably reasonable to assume that the large majority of people fall within a ‘reasonable’ bound of economic positions. The left should not scare-monger about extreme right positions as though all right-wing politicians and voters want complete economic anarchy. The right should not label as ‘communist’ anyone who dares suggest that perhaps the state might have a positive active role to play, and that that role might be bigger than it currently is in the US or UK.

One might say, perhaps, that for people on the economic left, the purpose of the state is to regulate the economy so that it works for everyone; and for people on the economic right, the purpose of the state is to maintain the rule of law but to otherwise step back from the economy so that the economy can work for everyone.

People on the left think that the economy works best when it is actively regulated and directed for the good of everyone, even though this puts restraints on the freedom of individuals to gather wealth to themselves, and indeed actively targets the wealth that would otherwise go to or be held by those at the top to redirect it to those at the bottom. This is a ‘collectivist’ position, because it is about putting restraints on the most well-off in order to help the community as a whole.

People on the right think that the economy works best when individuals have the right to do as they please for their own individual good, even when that harms others. This is an individualist position, because it is about the right of the individual to earn large amounts, to not consider the immediate impact of their actions upon others, and to keep wealth to themselves even when others in their country are suffering. There may be an attempt to claim that this is a ‘collectivism’ of sorts because proponents believe that any harm to others will rapidly dissipate as the economy improves for everyone, and therefore the wish of right-wingers is for the overall good of society and the economy. But the primary mechanism of action is through individualism: my right to do what I want now, without regard for your current need, wishes or interests.

In this sense, then, it is the right-wing that is individualist. It is the right-wing that shouts about ‘private property’ or complains about taxation. It is the right-wing that is willing to accept current harm for other people for the hope of a future good.

So why is it that the charge of ‘individualism’ seems to be directed more towards the left? Well, this is where the other axis on the Political Spectrum comes in. So far we have been talking about people’s economic views, which can vary from more to less state involvement. But there is another dimension in which the state can be involved, and that is in social life.

A state that takes more involvement in people’s personal and social lives is more authoritarian; one that takes no part at all is fully libertarian. Hitler’s Germany was economically fairly central, but socially highly authoritarian. Ayn Rand’s vision for society was economically far right and also socially highly libertarian. The difference between Caroline Lucas and Joseph Stalin is not so much their economic position, but their social position: Lucas is firmly in the libertarian camp; whilst Stalin is even further into the authoritarian camp.

It is on the social axes that the charge of individualism sticks to the so-called left-wing. I say ‘so-called’, because in fact it is not the left-wing who are socially individualistic but (ahem) the socially individualistic who are socially individualistic… It is a mistake to conflate the economic and social spectrums, not least because a high proportion of the UK population is economically left-wing and socially collective. I use the term ‘collective’ here to contrast with the ‘individualism’ of libertarianism, and as a marker that not all socially ‘authoritarian’ views are so extreme as to merit the term, any more than all free-market capitalists are anarchists.

Libertarians look for personal freedom: freedom to marry whom they will and to divorce at will; freedom to move around the country and world at will; freedom to express your personal sexual identity and orientation in public and even have this override biological reality; freedom to abort the unborn child; and freedom to not wear a facemask or have restrictions placed on your social interaction during war or for a public health reason.

Others say that we have social responsibilities towards one another and this includes codes of conduct in public places but also within relationships: marriage is for life, and if separation is necessary then this does not mean divorce or freedom to remarry; babies in the womb are real human beings whose lives may not be extinguished at the whim of the mother; natal males are different from natal females and this matters for sex-specific services; we all have duties to our families and our countries which limit our freedom to roam around the world.

Some people who hold more ‘collectivist’ views on the social scale (seen in the commitment to the family unit, restrictions on sexual behaviour outside of marriage, and restrictions on abortion in all instances where the mother’s life is not under medical threat) can nevertheless come down on the ‘libertarian’ side when it comes to other issues – like vaccines, facemasks, and restrictions on social interaction. Here, suddenly, it is all about my personal freedom despite the harm to you. Face masks primarily protect others from any infection carried by the wearer, so it comes down to my personal comfort over your exposure to any pathogens I carry. It is similar in this respect to the argument over smoking, with the difference that we don’t know who is smoking, or how many smokers there are in the room, and so we can’t judge our own personal safety. And in America, my right to carry a gun suddenly beats community safety. Everyone would be safer if there were fewer guns, but I don’t want to give up my right to shoot you first. There is, perhaps, some input here from the ‘economic’ axis of protecting my right to my property and myself.

Different people can therefore be libertarian or individualistic in different ways. The Political Compass has two axes and therefore four quadrants. In three of those quadrants are individualists, who may variously be economically collective and socially individual (this group may be termed ‘progressive’); economically individual and socially individual (these are the full libertarians); or economically individual and socially collective (neo-liberals with conservative family values). One may roughly assign these groups to Labour, Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives respectively, although the reality is more nuanced as Labour currently espouses an economically libertarian understanding of economies, and the Conservatives have brought in a number of socially libertarian policies. But the fourth quadrant, the economically and socially collective, is unrepresented politically and this is a shame for it is possibly a large group within the UK, and may be the closest representation of the ‘working class’, to the extent that any group of people can be categorised in such broad terms.

I would make the case, then, that ‘individualism’ is both a right-wing and a left-wing phenomenon, with the difference being on which issues one places one’s individualism and on which one places one’s collectivism. It is unfair of the right to call the left ‘individualists’ without recognising that the left has a strong concern for mutual wellbeing via the economy, and that their own views regarding private property and the right to self-defence are rather more on the ‘individualist’ ‘selfish’ side of things than not. And it is unfair of the left to assume that everyone on the right is greedy and self-centred, without recognising that many (albeit less so with the full libertarians) consider themselves to have strong duties to their family and may genuinely believe that their libertarian approach to the economy is the best way for the most people.

From a Christian perspective, I personally think that God places a high value on collectivism. When you consider the laws that God gave the Israelites, there were restrictions on sexual freedom with the goal of strengthening the family (social collectivism). But there were many more restrictions on economic individualism. The person who had money was commanded to give to the one without; to lend without interest, without taking necessities as pledges and without entering the person’s home; and to lend without consideration to the ability to repay. All debt was regularly cancelled. Land (access to work) and housing was redistributed every 50th year. Employers could not fire an employee but were required to keep them, provide for them, care for them, pay them well and release them with a generous gift at the end of their term of service. No-one was allowed to profit from the misfortune of another. God was far more concerned with the right of the poor to access what they needed to participate fully in society than he was with the right of the rich to keep what they had, and whenever the two came up against each other God’s commands came down on the rights of the poor. Yes, there is a command against theft – but God seems to mean the theft of the rich from the poor when they exploit or neglect the poor as much as he means the individual burglar taking someone else’s property. And he not only never says that tax is theft, but instituted a range of taxes (tithes, sacrifices and offerings) on top of the commands he gave around business practices and the support of the poor.

I think that both sides would do well to recognise the collective concerns of the other. Both would do well to consider what the evidence says about strong economies and stable families. But more importantly, both would also do well to consider what God has to say – the God who gave up everything so that we might become rich.


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