You should know this by now because you're told it often enough: Republicans are the party of individualism, Democrats the party of collectivism and statism. Yet it should be obvious, whatever you think about the U.S. taking in refugees from Syria, that the Democrats, represented by the Obama administration, are taking the individualist position by resisting demands, amplified after last Friday's attacks on Paris, to refuse Syrians entirely, or to allow only Christians while rejecting Muslims. In this case, the individualist position is "We mustn't assume that every Syrian refugee is an undercover terrorist, and we shouldn't allow the majority to suffer because some might be terrorists." Why don't the Republicans recognize this? Rather than jump to the conclusion, "They've never been true individualists, but only tribal bigots," let's recognize that, as always, there are two kinds of individualism in conflict in American politics, rather than a battle between individualism and collectivism. Call it a conflict between "individual liberty" and "human rights." One side is concerned mainly with removing limits on what individuals can accomplish or how much they can accumulate. They want to make sure the individual can be all he can be. The other side is concerned simply with making sure individuals stay alive as long as they can and suffer as little as possible. This side appears collectivist to the other side because their commitment to everyone's survival implicitly limits what any individual can earn in a competitive world. That commitment to what may look like mere survival may appear contemptible from the "individual liberty" standpoint. How can the "human rights" view be individualist if it puts individuals in a state of dependency on the state, as the Syrian refugees are believed likely to become? The answer is that the "human rights" view doesn't equate individualism with autonomy in the same way the "individual liberty" view does. If one side implies that a life with limited autonomy is not worth living, the other rejects the implication. There's an irreducibly hedonist element to the "human rights" position in its desire to minimize suffering and want that can be seen in the readiness to take in refugees, while the "individual liberty" stance is more existential, for want of a better word, in its concern for autonomy and, perhaps more crucially, its contempt for life as an end unto itself. That accounts for the indifference of avowed individualists to the plight of refugees, but what of the distrust? It may have a similar root. While "human rights" presumes that each and every individual person is an end unto itself and thus automatically entitled to respect and protection, and further presumes that each person is innocent until proven guilty, "individual liberty" sees individuals as something people become by choosing autonomy (or "personal responsibility"), and may not recognize individuals until they distinguish themselves from the rabble whose mere existence is of no concern to them or, worse, a burden they prefer not to carry. "Human rights" sees a mass of people whose self-evident needs are self-evidently compelling, while "individual liberty" reserves the right to ignore them or, if necessary, repel them.
None of the above is meant to sway anyone to one side or the other in the refugee debate. Some people may have reasons to reject refugees, and others reasons to demand unconditional acceptance of them, without reference to the continuum of individualism. That still leaves us with the seeming paradox we started with: those who most loudly avow themselves individualists refuse to recognize refugees as individuals, while those alleged to despise individualism seem more inclined to treat refugees as individuals rather than an undifferentiated "other" or "enemy." Recognizing this probably shouldn't decide one's position on taking in refugees, but it's worth remembering the next time some people boast of their belief in the individual and individualism, should you wish to ask who the real individualists are.