Statement of the Theory of Individualism:
The principle of individualism is also called Laissez Faire in French language, which means, ‘leave the individual alone’ and there should be minimum interference, in his functions, by the government. It should be left to the will of the individual to do what he desires.
The state or the government should only interfere when it feels that one individual is unnecessarily interfering in the liberty of the other. The state is, in fact, a necessary evil. The unity in the society is possible only when violence, deception and fraud are suppressed. Therefore, the function of the government should be limited to the protection of the citizens’ life and property; beyond this the individual should be left completely free.
John Stuart Mill, in his famous essay ‘On Liberty’ said, “The sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their member, is self-protection. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own goods either physical or moral is not sufficient warrant over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”.
Thus according to Mill, the main function of the state is protection. Therefore, the maintenance of army, police, navy and courts is justified, but the things which ‘ire not directly protective, like Post Office, Telegraph, Railways, Education, Hospitals, etc., should not be run by the government.
According to those who believe in individualism, the government should perform the following functions:
(1) The protection of the state and individuals against foreign aggression.
(2) Protection of individual against individual, in matters of physical harm (injury, aggression and killing), slander, personal restraint, etc.;
(3) The protection of property (theft, dacoity and other types of protection of property).
(4) Protection of individuals against false contracts or breach of contracts.
(5) Protection of the invalid persons.
(6) Protection of individuals against preventable epidemics like plague or malaria. Many individualists do not agree with the last two functions of the state.
Development of Individualistic Theory:
Though the germs of individualism can be traced in the Renaissance and Reformation movements of Europe, yet its real origin took place during the second half of the eighteenth century at the hands of Physiocrats of France.
This was given as a counterblast to mercantilism, which stood for the protection, regulation and control of industry, trade and commerce. Individualists were of the people. They preached in favour of open competition in trade and commerce in the name of natural rights. They were of the view that the open competition would benefit all.
Adam Smith was the staunch supporter of this theory, but we have complete explanation of this theory in the writings of John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer. Other supporters of this theory are the German philosophers. Kant and William Humboldt and the British writer Henry Sidgwick.
Bases of Individualism:
There are four main bases of this theory:
(1) Ethical Basis:
Thinkers like Kant, Fichte, Mill and Humboldt are the supporters of ethical basis. According to them, state interference goes against the development of the individual’s personality and character. They say that each individual is wise enough to understand his interest well. Therefore, he should have freedom to work according to his will.
The individual should be left free to himself to enable him to develop his personality and character. When the government encroaches upon the individual’s field, the individual loses all sense of responsibility and his self-reliance and personality are destroyed.
The interference by the government will result into many weaknesses in the individual and his natural powers will be destroyed. The rule of the nature is open competition and individual’s maximum development is possible only in it. By nature every individual wants maximum freedom. Therefore, there should be no state interference.
Humboldt says, “The real aim of the individual, which has been fixed by the orders of wisdom, is the maximum and complete development of human faculties.” Mill is of the view, that “Government interference starves the development of some portion of the bodily or mental faculties when it deprives one from doing what one is inclined to do or from acting according to one’s judgement of what is desirable”.
Mill has divided the functions of the individual into two parts:
(2) Affecting Society.
Personal functions are those which affect the individual who performs them, and which are related to him. Other functions are those which affect the society. Mill says that the state has no right to interfere in the functions of the individual, because the individual is supreme in those matters. However, in social functions the state must interfere.
(2) Political basis:
The political basis of this theory was developed by way of protest under the Social Contact Theory as propounded by John Locke against the claims of kings to absolute powers. John Locke advocated that the people enjoyed certain natural rights in the state of nature. Therefore, the duty of the state should be to protect those rights. The individualists supported the theory of Laissez Faire or ‘leave the individual alone’ not on the basis of any absolute justice, but they did it on the basis of the real achievement through state.
They said that the State was mean, not an end. Therefore, the state is essential for the welfare of individual. The individual is not for the welfare of the state. Therefore, the functions of the state should not be unlimited.
Secondly, the state has already many functions to perform, and it is not advisable to increase them as Mill has said, “Every additional function means a new burden on a body already over-charged with duties; the result is that most things are ill-done, and much is not done at all.”
Moderate and Extreme Individualism:
Whereas Mills intends to limit the functions of the state and he does not want to abolish the state completely, Herbert Spencer is not ready to make the state a continuous institution. According to him, after completing certain conditions, the state can be abolished.
That is why Mill is called a Moderate Individualist and Spencer as an extreme individualist. Herbert Spencer said, “Every, man is free to do that which he will, provided he infringes not upon the equal freedom of any other man”.
Regarding the state he says, “It is unquestionably true that the government is begotten of aggression and by aggression… Have we not shown that government is essentially immoral? Does it not exist because crime exists, and must government not cease when crime ceases, for the very lack of objects on which to perform its function?” In this way Herbert Spencer opposed the government interference in trade and industries.
(3) Scientific Basis:
Herbert Spencer has supported individualism on the biological basis. He says that in biology there is a continuo’s struggle among the organisms and animals. Only the strong survive in this struggle and the weak perish. This is the law of nature.
He asks why this law of natural development should not be applied to human life. Incapable and feeble people shall automatically perish in society and only strong and able persons will survive. He believes in the survival of the fittest.
He feels that the state is rendering the society weak by protecting development. According to Spencer, compulsory education, help to the poor, social laws, and changing the law of natural development are useless efforts.
Spencer further says, “Government should let poverty and insanitary houses alone, so that the weaker types may soon die out; it should let industrial competition alone, however intense, because from such competition, the best individuals come to the top”.
(4) Economic Basis:
Adam Smith supported individualism on the economic basis. He was of the view that the state or the government should not interfere in the economic sphere as far as possible. Each individual is competent to safeguard his interests well. He maintained that the government which governed least, governed best.
The trade and industry flourish best if left to private enterprise. Thus wages, rent, interest and prices should be left unfettered so that they may adjust themselves to the prevailing conditions. Non-interference by the government will encourage open competition, which will give opportunity to the capitalist to earn more and more.
Consequently, he will invest more in the market, and the labourer will work more to earn better wages. Open competition will not only benefit the capitalist but it will also benefit the labourer and the consumer.
On the other hand, government control will hinder the enthusiasm of the capitalists. If the state fixes minimum wages and working hours for the labourers, it will be difficult to have cheap labour and thus it will be difficult to get work from them. This will also reduce the production.
According to the individualists, the state should not fix the rates of the commodities because they will be settled automatically under the formula of supply and demand. If the demand of a commodity is in excess of the supply, the rates shall go high, but if the demand is less and supply is in abundance, the prices shall go down.
In this way the industries, commerce and trade should be left without any regulation and control, because thus they will develop to a great extent. According to individualists that government is best which governs the least.
Cainer observes, “Laissez-faire assumes that the interests of human beings are fundamentally the same, that which is best for the interest of one is the best for others, that the individual known’s his interests in the sense in which they are coincident with the interests of others and that in the absence of coercion, he will in this sense follow them”.