Political and social philosophy that emphasizes individual freedom. Modern individualism emerged in Britain with the ideas of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham, and the concept was described by Alexis de Tocqueville as fundamental to the American temper. Individualism encompasses a value system, a theory of human nature, and a belief in certain political, economic, social, and religious arrangements. According to the individualist, all values are human-centred, the individual is of supreme importance, and all individuals are morally equal. Individualism places great value on self-reliance, on privacy, and on mutual respect. Negatively, it embraces opposition to authority and to all manner of controls over the individual, especially when exercised by the state. As a theory of human nature, individualism holds that the interests of the normal adult are best served by allowing him maximum freedom and responsibility for choosing his objectives and the means for obtaining them. The institutional embodiment of individualism follows from these principles. All individualists believe that government should keep its interference in the lives of individuals at a minimum, confining itself largely to maintaining law and order, preventing individuals from interfering with others, and enforcing agreements (contracts) voluntarily arrived at. Individualism also implies a property system according to which each person or family enjoys the maximum of opportunity to acquire property and to manage and dispose of it as he or they see fit. Although economic individualism and political individualism in the form of democracy advanced together for a while, in the course of the 19th century they eventually proved incompatible, as newly enfranchised voters came to demand governmental intervention in the economic process. Individualistic ideas lost ground in the later 19th and early 20th century with the rise of large-scale social organization and the emergence of political theories opposed to individualism, particularly communism and fascism. They reemerged in the latter half of the 20th century with the defeat of fascism and the fall of communist regimes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. See also libertarianism.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on individualism, visit

Seen & Heard

What made you look up individualism? Please tell us what you were reading, watching or discussing that led you here.

Get Our Free Apps
Voice Search, Favorites,
Word of the Day, and More
Join Us on FB & Twitter
Get the Word of the Day and More