Possessive Individualism

[The present study] suggests that the difficulties of the modern liberal-democratic theory lie deeper than had been thought, that the original seventeenth-century individualism contained the central difficulty, which lay in its possessive quality.  Its possessive quality is found in its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them.  The individual was seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of a larger social whole, but as an owner of himself.  The relation of ownership, having become for more and more men the critically important relation determining their actual freedom and actual prospect of realizing their full potentialities, was read back into the nature of the individual.  The individual, it was thought, is free inasmuch as he is proprietor of his person and capacities.  The human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession.  Society becomes a lot of free equal individuals related to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they have acquired by their exercise.  Society consists of relations of exchange between proprietors.  Political society becomes a calculated device for the protection of this property and for the maintenance of an orderly relation of exchange. (3)

C.B. Macpherson | The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke

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