The New Individualists
One consequence of the virtual abandonment of individualism as a description of the American character was that the concept could be picked up by a new set of intellectuals who could breathe new life into it, and this is indeed what happened between the 1930s and the 1960s. As the Old Right lashed out at the growing collectivism fostered by the New Deal, they sought to recapture the idea of individualism not merely as a description but as a creed. The new individualists who reacted against the trends of the day used the opportunity of laying out a whole theory of individualism. Although the new vision resembled in many ways some of the ad hoc beliefs of the nineteenth-century version, its most articulate and consistent defenders went considerably farther in articulating a theoretical individualism that would supplant the earlier descriptive individualism.
The most prominent and influential of the new individualists is by far the philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand. In the course of her writing, through four novels and a half dozen works of philosophy, Rand presented an integrated philosophic defense of individualism that has helped to redefine the very concept of individualism. A crucial aspect of Rand’s philosophic system is the identification of fundamentals, which drove her to situate individualism at a far deeper level than previous thinkers. The theme of her first commercially successful book, The Fountainhead, Rand (1963) noted, was “individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in man’s soul” (p. 73). As Rand (2005) explained in a lecture at West Point in 1974, “individualism is not a philosophical, nor even a political, primary. It is a concept which, to be valid, must rest on a valid epistemological and metaphysical base” (p. 162). Thus, although Rand (1995) held that individualism meant “that man has inalienable rights which cannot be taken away from him by any other man, nor by any number, group or collective of other men” (p. 366), she held that this view was a consequence of her view of human reason, and further, that such a political state was possible only if one held such a view.
What is most distinctive about Rand’s theoretical approach to individualism in distinction from earlier views is that Rand seeks to validate individualism as a philosophic doctrine rather than merely employ it descriptively to people who reject serving the collective good or who want individual freedom politically. Rand believed that the individual was the primary unit of social and political value, which she saw as a corollary of the view that each man was morally an end in himself (Peikoff, 1991, p. 361). Yet Rand did not even consider her vision of an egoist moral code to be her philosophic primary. Instead, it was her advocacy of reason that grounded her individualism. As Rand’s student Nathanial Branden (Rand, 1964) explained in one of her books, “an individualist is, first and foremost, a man of reason” (p. 136). In this way, Rand believed that her theoretical ethical-political individualism was a requirement of human survival because such survival depended on each man’s exercise of his rational faculty. As Peikoff (1991) explains, “if reason is an attribute of the individual; and if the choice to think or not controls all of a man’s other choices and their products . . . then the individual is sovereign” (p. 202).
Rand’s individualism is uniquely both theoretical—justifying and validating through an epistemological observation about man’s nature why he must live under a system of individual rights and freedom— and aspirational, arguing that each individual ought to seek morally to live up to the requirements of his own survival by depending morally only on himself and his own mind even as he exists in an economically complex division-of-labor society where he trades with and interacts with others every day. Rand (Peikoff, 1991) noted this aspect of her view of individualism when she wrote “as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul” (p. 202). For her, individualism meant a recognition that each individual, even in society, exists as though he were on a desert island, that the responsibility for his life and his survival redounds to him alone. The political manifestation of this individualism is a system where individuals are left free to pursue their own ends, in ways that are compatible with the like freedom of others (Rand, 1964, p. 135). Thus, to succeed in living as an individualist requires that each individual recognize and respect the rights of others.