Conservatism today places individualism on a pedestal, but it originally arose in revolt against that idea. As the conservative thinker Robert A. Nisbet noted in 1968, conservatism represented a “reaction to the individualistic Enlightenment.” It “stressed the small social groups of society” and regarded such clusters of humanity — not individuals — as society’s “irreducible unit.”
True, conservatives continue to preach the importance of the family as a communal unit. But for Nisbet and many other conservatives of his era, the movement was about something larger. It “insisted upon the primacy of society to the individual — historically, logically and ethically.”
Because of the depth of our commitment to individual liberty, Americans never fully adopted this all-encompassing view of community. But we never fully rejected it, either. And therein lies the genius of the American tradition: We were born with a divided political heart. From the beginning, we have been torn by a deep but healthy tension between individualism and community. We are communitarian individualists or individualistic communitarians, but we have rarely been comfortable with being all one or all the other.
E.J. is, in effect, trying to advance an ideology of balance and moderation. The problem with that is that the internal tension from fusing communitarian and individualistic values renders the attempt confusing and unpersuasive to many.
The philosophical musings of our very erudite Founding Fathers shaped our Constitution but they are not what that American tradition sprang from. It came, I believe, from the ascendency of the free market over the remnants of the feudal order. The development of the division of labor across enterprises was a visable object lesson, with tangible benefits, in the value of cooperation. The "industrial revolution" was not just economic -- it was a cultural and even moral advance.
In today's age of globalization manufacturing has become widely dispersed. It is less visable and, in the more developed countries, less labor intensive. The individual efforts of entrepreneurs and CEOs are glamorized while the collective efforts of ordinary workers is less recognized. This shows clearly in the widening gap in compensation and the moral consequences show in the political dialog.
I believe it is more the appearance than the reality of our capitalist free market system that has changed. The lessons of the division of labor remain valid, only less obvious. The result is overemphasis of the individual over the community.
"For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.''
-- Rudyard Kipling