Conservatives often praise individualism as a virtue that all people should have. This is a mistake. Although it is natural for free people to admire individualism, Alexis de Tocqueville made a convincing argument that this was a dangerous tendency for the republic. Modern conservatives should consider this argument before offering any unreserved praise of individualism.
Tocqueville believed that individualism was unique to democratic people and described it as a “Reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.” This does not mean that acting in one’s own self-interest is bad, the danger comes when self-interest becomes a dominant passion that chokes out concern for the affairs of the local community.
Equality of conditions produces this passion by removing the relationships of dependence and obligations that define aristocracy. Men rarely rise in aristocratic societies and never without the generosity of a lord. This prevents individualism because men will be loyal to those who benefited them. In democracies, however, men quickly rise and fall in society and believe that they do so on their own merits. The transience of wealth and status produce men who believe themselves to be in control of their own affairs and creates individualism.
This threatens the democratic township because men who feel no obligation to their fellow citizens will not get involved in public affairs. Tocqueville believed the township was the most important aspect of American government because it conditions the people toward freedom “It is nonetheless in the township that the force of free peoples resides…they put it within reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate them to making use of it.” The township achieves this by cultivating what Tocqueville called the “Spirit of the Township” which runs contrary to individualism and leads men to take an active interest in public affairs. The township earns men’s loyalty and they feel a duty to protect it. This protective instinct is not the blind patriotism found in monarchies and aristocracies but an enlightened calculation based on self-interest “The inhabitant of New England is attached to his township not so much because he was born there as because he sees in that township a free and strong corporation that he is part of and that is worth his trouble to seek and direct.” The act of viewing public affairs as something that they can and should become involved in provides the habituation towards free government that is essential for the preservation of a healthy democracy.
Sustainable free government cannot be created without this habituation. If men are not habituated toward considering and actively pursuing the public good they will become fully absorbed in private affairs and neglect public ones. By making all men equal, democracy enables them to dramatically improve their situations through their own hard work. Since they believe that they are capable of managing their own affairs, they begin to ignore local government.
If this tendency is not actively combated American government will inevitably become more despotic. As society becomes more individualistic citizens will lose their love of freedom because they will cease to see how freedom is directly connected to their own well-being. Once this happens, they will no longer fight to preserve freedom and it will only be a matter of time before the country succumbs to despotism.