The government which governs the least is considered to be the best government. The individualists maintain that the state should only perform the protective or law-and-order functions for its citizens; beyond those functions, the state should not intervene in the social and economic spheres.
The individualists laid stress on the aspect of liberty, interpreted in terms of absence of restraint enjoyed primarily in the realm of civil society.
The individualists were inspired by a French school of economic thought called Physiocrats who paved the way for laissez-faire individualism.
It is a French word which means ‘leave alone’. It signified non-intervention by the state in the economic activities.
It forms a part of liberal political theory in the sense that it regards the property right of individual as a necessary condition of liberty and seeks to set limit on government to regulate the socio-economic domain.
It regards state as-a necessary evil because it curtails freedom-brat can only safeguard it in case of its encroachment by others.
It was led by burghers, the tradesmen, the money-lenders and the small manufactures of France and England in the eighteenth century who had felt terribly restrained by the controls and regulations of the mercantilist state.
It flourished as a social and political theory form the middle of the 18th century till about the middle of the 19th century.
It was advocated by the French physiocratic political economists (Francois Quesnay and Victor de Riqueis; Marquis de Mirabeau), the English classical political economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill) and by Herbert Spencer. In India, the individualistic view of the ideology of Laissez- faire is chiefly a characteristic of curly phase of capitalism (after merchantile one).
Mercantilist policies were pursued by the state of England, France and Germany in the 17th and early part of the 18th centuries. Through the policies of mercantilism, each country sought to obtain a favourable balance of trade against its international or foreign rivals.
There mercantilist system was a system of state regulations and controls over the economy, aimed at increasing national power and wealth. It was directed not only against foreign states and their economies, but also against the internal or domestic sources of challenge. Factory replaces form as unit of production.
The wealth accumulated in this phase gave rise to a new middle class, who pressed for reform and loosening state control.
Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer were the major theorists of individualism and laissez-faire. Their theories have been discussed as under.
Adam Smith in his “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)” offered an economic argument for laissez- faire individualism. He attacked the mercantilist system of controls and regulations, which, he said prevented the division of labour from yielding its fruits.
He also attacked the state’s rights to grant monopoly privileges to firms and companies which thereby receive unfair and unproductive protection from competition. He was greatly influenced by the ideas of French physiocrats.
According to Smith, economic growth depends on exploitation of nature, division of labour, expansion of markets, free trade, capital accumulation and economic competitor. The free or unfettered pursuit of self-interest by the individuals under competitive conditions would, according to him lead to greater productivity and the increase of wealth, the benefits of which would get diffused throughout the society.
In this way, there would come about a “system of natural liberty and perfect justice.” The competitive market, he said, is selfioeguiating and harmonious.
He pins faith in visible hand that will bring about the harmony of individual interests through the self-adjustment of the forces of supply and demand.
Smith espoused the political manifestation of economic laissez-faire, in terms of natural liberty of individuals. Consequently, states role was confined to
a. protect the nation
b. protect the individual
c. Maintain certain public work departments.
Spencer wrote three works, viz, “The “Proper Sphere of Government, Social Statics” and “Man versus State” to advance an extreme form of laissez-faire individualism, inspired by the Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest and the law of natural selection, he says “State exists so Long as Crime exist in Society.
He says that society should allow those who are fit and well-adjusted to survive and flourish, while those who are unfit and maladjusted to their environment should be left to perish.
In his view, the only legitimate functions of the state are the maintenance of order and the administration of justice, and their purpose is “simply to defend the rural rights of man to protect person and property.” Beyond these, the state, says Spencer, should not interfere with the natural, self-adjusting laws of society.
He denies to the state any role in regulating currency, running the postal services, regulating trade and commerce or aiding the poor.
He drew a distinction between the “military state,” in which the individuals are more meant to the realization of the ends of the state, and the “industrial state”, in which the individuals constitute the supreme end of government.
The rights of the individual, he says, precede the state and are inalienable. Even popular majorities would not interfere with those inalienable nights.
Aim of liberalism, “was that of putting a limit to the power of kings. The function of true Liberalism in the future will be that of putting limit to the powers of parliament.” States intervention in society hampers individual initiative and retards the progress of society.
Mill in his works; viz; “Oft Liberty” “Principles of Political Economy” “Considerations on Representative Government”, “The subjugation of women,” started with defense of latssez-faire individualism but sought to remedy it with positive functions of the state. In fact he was a champion of negative liberty and positive state.
While Smith and Spencer sought to promote the individualistic doctrine in instrumental terms, Mill gave it a moral orientation; this case for individual liberty was conceived as an essential ingredient of qualitative life. In particular, he emphasized on liberty of thought and expression as well as liberty of conduct.
Mill makes a distinction between ‘self-regarding actions’ and ‘other regarding actions.’ An individual is granted complete freedom in all matters not affecting the community. However, in ‘other regarding actions’, he grants the right to the community
His opposition to the interventionist state is based on the assumption that things are better done by the concerned individuals than by government officials.
The second reason is that self-governing activities by the individuals are a “means to their own mental education a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgment and giving them a fair knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal.”
Mill argues, in other words, that we can develop ourselves by doing many things which we normally leave to the Government to do for us.
Even if certain things can be better done by the Government than by ourselves Mill says, we should still do them ourselves as they will have an educative and developmental impact on us.
Elaborating upon his ethical grounds for opposing the state’s compulsion of the individual, Mill writes: “A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes-will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.”
In contemporary period moral individualism has been emphasized by Rawls; economic (laissez- faire) individualism by Triedman, Lozick and Hayek; methodological individualism by Karl Popper in his theory of incremental change.