Individualism and Inequality

Individualism and Inequality

The Future of Work and Politics

Ralph Fevre

A belief in individual self-determination powered the development of universal human rights and inspired social movements from anti-slavery to socialism and feminism. At the same time, every attempt to embed individualism in systems of education and employment has eventually led to increased social inequality. Across the globe individualism has been transformed from a revolutionary force into an explanation for increasingly unequal societies where dissent is largely silent. This book explores the possibility of rediscovering the original, transformative potential of individualism.

Chapter 5: American ideology: millennium and utopia

Ralph Fevre

Subjects: business and management, critical management studies, economics and finance, labour economics, politics and public policy, human rights, public policy, social policy and sociology, labour policy


In Adam Smith’s view, cognitive individualism provided all the rationale that was required for private education. People pursued it because there was evidence to suggest that this pursuit would bring a satisfactory return on their investment. It was sentimental individualism that necessitated public education. Until the last decade of the nineteenth century, the American approach to public education was much closer to the approach proposed by Adam Smith and, at least in part, modelled on the existing system of public education in his native Scotland (Meyer et al. 1979). Yet, how can the rationale for American public education have been provided by sentimental individualism, when we have already seen how little headway sentimental individualism made in American debates about slavery and child labour? To a degree, the answer to this question is the point made in Chapter 2 about historical contingencies. It would be thoroughly ahistorical to argue that nineteenth-century America was intrinsically incapable of basing policy on sentimental individualism. The slow progress of abolitionism in the USA was a result of real historical processes but this chapter will show that there were other historical processes which made it possible to expand public education to achieve sentimental individualist ends. These contingencies were also implicated in the causes of the Civil War (Higham 1974), which finally brought an end to slavery, but they did not extend to the limitation of child labour.

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