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The ISI Experience


The Limits of Individualism

One of the great ironies of modernity is that as human beings have gained more autonomy for themselves, the centralized state has exploded in size and scope—a phenomenon certainly not friendly to the preservation of individual liberty. At the same time, the voluntary institutions of civil society—those “little platoons” that Edmund Burke famously championed—have withered, robbing us of the traditional ties that bind.

Why is this the case? Why, to use Robert Putnam’s phrase, are we “bowling alone” in this age of unprecedented autonomy and affluence?

Solving this conundrum became the primary focus of one of the leading intellectuals of the postwar conservative revival, Robert Nisbet. Because Nisbet’s “quest for community” is such an important component of a complete conservative vision for America, it is the subject of this month’s edition of “The ISI Experience.”

Of course, Nisbet was not the first to notice the tension in an egalitarian society between liberty, centralization, and the institutions of civil society. In the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville saw the beginnings of such ominous trends as political centralization, cultural homogeneity, manic materialism, and a growing feeling of personal restlessness despite abounding wealth and opportunity. In a sea of prosperity, Americans were seasick, and they might turn inward on themselves, toward a brooding selfishness Tocqueville called “individualism,” if not for the rich associational, religious, and family life that for Tocqueville was essential for the well-ordering of both the soul and the state.

By the time Nisbet wrote in the mid-twentieth century, that civil society had clearly declined. He worried that if Americans could not find community in civil society, they would seek it instead in the arms of the administrative state, with disastrous results.

Is that where we find ourselves in the twenty-first century? How can conservatives achieve a revival of both liberty and community? These videos and short readings offer some answers.