Individualism, Reaffirmed by Science


Among the numerous elements of America's cultural and political tradition, none gets so much flack from critics as individualism. As I read through all the articles in such publications as The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The American Prospect, from the Left, as others like Commentary and The American Spectator on the Right, I find individualism a target in both camps.

Conservatives, following Edmund Burke, and liberals, echoing Karl Marx, both consider individualism some kind of fake social philosophy, made up only to please a certain class called the bourgeoisie. Intellectuals from both camps deride it, showing disdain for it in the arts and in political thought. Militant leaders of both Left and Right wing regimes, such as Stalin and Hitler, consider individualism simple and untrue.

Even in America, most academic political and social theorist with clout--meaning their books get well published and they have prominent position at prestigious universities'-think of individualism as some kind of pedestrian ideology that simply misunderstands the human condition. For example, communitarians, lead by the likes of Professor Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University in the District of Columbia, see individualism as an insidious feature of the American landscape. They hold it responsible for all kinds of ills of our society-'one need only look at Etzioni's book, The Spirit of Community, to confirm this.

Yet, individualism is nearly inescapable as a central feature of the human condition. We are all unique-'none of us is replaceable as the human being we are. Just consider the loss of a friend or other loved one'-there just isn't any escaping the fact that once a person is lost, there is no one to take his or her unique place. One must simply mourn and recover, never attempt to substitute!

Even certain biologists have made a point of noting that we are unique as physical entities, let alone as persons with a soul and mind, meaning a value system and a way of thinking about the world. One need but look at a crowd, especially in a relatively free country such as the United States of America'-while we are all human beings, we are also quite distinctive in who we are. We look and feel and act differently, we all have our ways, good or bad.

Now it emerges that even medicine is making individualism a cornerstone of its progress. No longer is it hidden from view that cures need to be fashioned to specific individuals, that dosages are different for different people, that the way one person should stay fit isn't suited to everyone else, and so forth and so on.

The most recent recognition of this comes from the pharmacogenomics, a new science that shows that drugs need to be fitted to individual patients. As reported by the Associated Press, 'Even the best medicines do not help everyone. Drugs are sold after they prove an effect on the average disease sufferer, not every individual.' As an example, 'An estimated 7% of Americans lack certain p450 enzymes, allowing some drugs to climb to toxic levels in their bodies. Other people have p4350 enzymes that work so fast that a drug clears their bloodstream before it can fight their disease.'

The one-size-fits all theory of medication has always been evident but finally it is getting official recognition'-even the Food and Drug Administration, an agency of the government most guilty of lumping us all into one huge pool, is taking heed.

Humanity has always flirted with varieties of collectivism, the one-size-fits-all social experiment. Perhaps its most visible symbol has been those massive rallies during the heyday of Chinese communism where everyone was wearing blue pajamas to demonstrate their ultimate oneness. Such systems have brought about the worst horrors of human history'-just think of Hitler and Stalin and the rest who have tried to mold us all into their image of how we all must be.

It is gratifying to see that contrary to sophisticated opinion, the old American notion of individualism is finding more and more factual support these days, even in the field of medicine.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.