Individualism and Inequality
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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.
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Chapter 3: Adam Smith and American individualism

Ralph Fevre


Can the USA and the UK really be treated as equally important to anti-slavery and other examples of human rights campaigns in the way Hans Joas suggests? Chapter 2 certainly suggested that human rights did not owe as much to American Protestantism as he contended. This chapter discusses the idea that the combination of ideas drawn from religious, sentimental and cognitive individualism – their relative importance and the degree to which one strand influences the other – are of primary importance in the trajectories of polities, societies and economies. The USA was not wholly lacking in sentimental individualism but the mixture of individualist ideas that developed there did not have the same explosive effect documented in British anti-slavery, for example. Lukes (1973) was hardly being controversial when – writing a few years before neoliberalism began its take-over – he sharply distinguished the individualisms of the USA and the UK. In nineteenth-century Britain, the ideas which underpinned equality and freedom – respect for human dignity, autonomy, privacy and self-development – were stronger. In the USA, the dominant strand of individualism was associated with classical liberalism and its emphasis on the right to property and to make a living as one chooses, free-thinking, self-help, minimal government and taxation, and free trade. What caused this difference was that, in the USA, cognition filled the gaps in understanding (and law and policy) that sentimental individualism occupied more fully in the UK.

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