June 22, 2022


Fighting Statism with Community

By: Christina Grattan

To pursue liberty and human flourishing, individualism is exalted today within conservative-libertarian circles. We witness how individualism is highly valued as bastions of freedom champion how “the smallest minority on earth is the individual” and the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag is proudly flown on trucks to oppose big government tyranny. To them, pursuing one’s own happiness is viewed as the highest good, and self-interest is a virtue. 

However, Americans must remember there are limitations to individualism when fighting for liberty. The individual is not the only autonomous entity who thinks, reasons, and acts. A society can only be free and prosper when an individual is an active participant in their community. Individualism on its own cannot be a solution to tyranny.  

Community includes civil society, which constitutes “the family neighborhoods, church, and voluntary organizations.” These mediating institutions create a sphere of action between the individual and the State that are indispensable to liberty.

In Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville based the stability of a democratic republic on these mediating institutions, which he called “mores” or “habits of the heart.” Whether these natural groupings were “religious, moral, futile…immense or very small,” voluntary associations brought the American people together and determined their “moral and intellectual state.” (248, 274-275) Americans formed associations to “found seminaries, build inns, raise churches, distribute books,” and build hospitals, prisons, and schools (248). All of these actions done within the community enhanced the quality of American society at that time. 

As Tocqueville understood, humans have a natural propensity to form communities. In the Bible’s creation account, after God formed Adam, he said it was “not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). That is why God created a partner for man. Human life was not meant to be endured in isolation.

With the increase in depression and mental health issues from living a siloed life during  COVID-19 lockdowns, the need for people to congregate and form associations with others cannot be more evident. As Robert Putnam realized in Bowling Alone, discord between “families, friends, and democratic structures…impoverishes lives and communities,” decreasing social capital. The individual languishes on their own.  

When the individual becomes the highest entity in human life above other social goods, they reject “the traditional arrangements of social living as God-given or inevitable.” Man on his own attempts “to soar above the group and family members,” and as Robert Nisbet understood, the individual becomes primary and relationships secondary. 

When one becomes liberated from natural relationships and voluntary associations, the power of the State increases. In The Quest for Community, Nisbet wrote that “It is impossible to understand massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth century, appearing so paradoxically, or it has seemed after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals, unless we see the close relationship that has prevailed through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State.” (145) 

When people engage in community, they further the common good by building soup kitchens and hospitals. Tight-knit families support their children and help them become virtuous in their public and private life. As Ryan Streeter, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, explains, “Engagement in one’s community affects one’s perception of it and instills a sense of empowerment.” Those who understand the value of community are more likely to be part of a religious organization and contribute positively contribute positively to them. 

However, without these mores,Tocqueville described where people invest in their local communities, the individual is alienated and left with nothing but the State to depend on for sustenance. Civil society is eradicated without community. 

When the State offers social services such as welfare, daycare, and free healthcare, it further diminishes community-based initiatives, constraining the sphere of liberty between the individual and the State. The mechanism of the State is increased to meet these needs due to the lack of a dynamic civil society through a strewn-out bureaucracy. 

As Nisbet further elaborates, “The individual alone is powerless. Individual will and memory, apart from the reinforcement of associative tradition, are weak and ephemeral. How well the totalitarian rulers know this. Even constitutional guarantees and organic laws dim to popular vision when the social and cultural identities of persons become atomized, when the reality of freedom and order in the small areas of society becomes obscure.”

This is why Tocqueville wrote that “It is clear that if each citizen, as he becomes individually weaker and consequently more incapable in isolation of preserving his freedom, does not learn the art of uniting with those like him to defend it, tyranny will necessarily grow with equality.” (489) 

It is time to use our freedom to come together and serve others within our community rather than merely advocating for individual rights and autonomy. We must build a robust civil society to curb the intrusive power of the State which threatens self-government for good. Individualism cannot sustain America on its own.