Herbert Hoover once praised the “American system of rugged individualism.” (This was the same Hoover who gave Americans a trial run of New Deal socialism.) The ideology of individualism is a classic piece of 19th-century claptrap. Once upon a time, people could speak of freedom and liberty without erecting an “ism” or “ology,” but as real liberty was destroyed, it was not replaced with a frank admission of servility but with the twin abstractions of “collectivism” and “individualism,” which turned out in practice to mean virtually the same thing: the destruction of the social conditions that enable some people to be free.

The word “individual” was suspect almost from the start. Beginning as a term of medieval philosophy, it was used to signify that which could not be divided—an atom, in other words. From there, it came to mean a single example of a species of things, and from there it was downhill to the word’s current sacred status, as in “freedom of the individual” and “individual rights.”

Here in Middle America, yon can still hear middle-class college graduates use “individual” as a synonym for “man” or “person.” Mencken blamed the newspapers of the Gilded Age, citing Dean Alford’s denunciation of newspaper English: “You never read of a man, or a woman, or a cliild. A man is an individual, or a person, or a party; a woman is a female or, if unmarried, a young person; a child is a juvenile, and children en masse are expressed by that most odious term, the rising generation.”

To say “individual” instead of “man” is a harmless—if irritating—mistake. More insidious is the persistent confusion of “individual” with “person.” While a person, in the traditional sense, is a human being—body and soul—considered in relation to his fellows and to his Maker, the individual is by definition an atom in the void, considered abstractly for itself. The individual is, therefore a cipher, or rather art imaginary number.

The very concept, when introduced into political discourse, annihilates all human distinctions between old and young, man and woman, wise and foolish, good and bad. To thai extent, an individual cannot possibly have liberty, either in a political or moral sense. Real liberty is always the extension of some distinctive quality—a strong right arm, personal courage, the British rule of law. The individual’s only “freedom” is what the state is willing to grant to all without distinction, and a strong man, possessed of both courage and wisdom, will in the end have no more liberty than a newborn baby. That is, he will have none at all.