Political Theories that Give Priority to the Individual

Political Theories that Give Priority to the Individual

June 28, 2021 Off By Felso

The concept that has left its mark on political philosophy since the beginning of the twentieth century is the concept of the individual. Especially the success of liberal ideologies in defending the concept of the individual causes the dominant definition of the state and society to be made in terms of individuals.

For liberal theorists, the only reality is individuals. Liberalism’s belief that the individual precedes all social and political structures often leads to the definition of the individual as “abstract individualism”. In this case, for liberal theorists, society is as much a nominal value as the state. In other words, both the state and the society can only be explained by the free will of individual individuals.

In liberal-individualist theories that emerge based on the free will of individuals in moral and economic terms, the fact that the expectation from the state is limited to security does not require citizens to participate in politics or to undertake duties towards the state. For this reason, liberal theorists, while sharply distinguishing between being an individual and being a citizen, consider the citizenship of the individual -as seen in the Aristotelian tradition- not an existential one but a choice.

The fact that citizenship has become a matter of choice is the clearest indication that the state is not a special focus of loyalty. According to liberal theorists, who especially avoid anthropomorphic understandings in their analysis of the nature of the state, designing the state as a being separate from and superior to the will of the citizens is part of “(…) a tradition of worshiping the state in the history of political thought” (Barry 2003, p. 73).

For liberals, the state is a bureaucratic mechanism that is a function of the actions of officials it authorizes depending on the rules. In other words, the state does not have goals of its own, and it has no meaning beyond a tool that fulfills the goals of individuals and groups.

Although liberal theorists did not value the state more than the sum of individuals, they still cannot give up on the state. In their eyes, the state is, in Locke’s words, “necessary evil.” The evil of the state is that it limits individual freedoms, and its necessity arises from making the restricted freedom safer than it is in nature. In this respect, the main problem for liberal theorists is not to destroy the state, but to limit it.

Since the increase in the intervention power of the state poses a threat to freedoms, limiting the sphere of activity of the state with structures such as constitutionality, rule of law, separation of powers, recognition of opposition and freedom of the press, and the right to resistance is of central importance in the theories of liberal thinkers.

The limitation of the state also constitutes the guarantee of the sustainability of the liberal understanding of freedom, which is realized by making its own rational choices. Liberal theorists’ understanding of freedom is defined by the concept of “negative freedom” in Isaiah Berlin’s famous article titled “Two Concepts of Freedom” written in the second half of the 20th century. Negative freedom refers to the breadth of the field in which a person can act without being subjected to physical pressures, inhibitions and coercion by another person, group or institution in realizing his personal wishes (Berlin 1997, p. 393).

From the perspective of the negative definition of freedom, freedom is related to the absence of outside interference. Therefore, the state, due to its power of intervention, is one of the biggest obstacles to freedom, especially for classical liberal theorists. However, in any order where individuals are left entirely to their own fate, the breakdown of equality due to coincidence or a historical situation that does not originate from the individual creates differences of opinion among liberal theorists about the possibilities of establishing a just state and the limits of this just state’s intervention power. As a matter of fact, one of the contemporary defenders of liberal theory, John Rawls, draws attention to the deficiencies of the classical liberal view in ensuring justice between individuals, leading to an inherent criticism and renewal in liberal discourse.

Subject Headings
State-individual-society relations in classical liberalism
State-individual-society relations in egalitarian liberalism
The stateless individual: what is libertarianism?