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Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Individualism

INDIVIDUALISM, the system of thought which treats the well-being of the individual as the true aim of the state, and his development as the goal of ethics and religion. In political thought a person may be an anarchist, a believer in unrestricted individual action, or like Hobbes hold that an individual's interest is best served by a despotic state. Usually an individualist holds to the belief of Locke and Jefferson that only those restrictions on the individual's behavior are justified which are essential to protect the welfare of other citizens of the state. This line, however, can be, and in the history of political science has been, drawn so as to place very serious restrictions on individual action. In economics individualism means what is generally termed the laissez faire policy, viz. the State to keep hands off the economic machinery. Free and unrestricted competition is to prevail, no minimum wage laws, no restrictions on the hours of labor or conditions of labor, no price fixing by the state, compensation being solely a matter between the parties involved. This system was largely held to in England and the United States during the early portion of the nineteenth century, but it resulted in frightful loss of life among mine workers and factory operatives, and now few individuals are extreme enough to demand its application.

Individualism in ethics and religion would make a man's conscience the sole arbiter of his actions. Protestant theory started out on this basis, taking its cue from Luther's famous phrase, but soon discovered its impracticability in the excesses which it brought forth. Now every form of religious denomination, except perhaps the Society of Friends, demands the adherence of the individuals to some fixed standard of belief and conduct.