There are some simple distinctions that could be very helpful for a liberal- but open-minded person like Andersen. First, self-interest and selfishness are not the same. It is self-interested to work 40 hours a week in order to afford a home; it is not necessarily selfish. Second, it is not primarily selfishness or greed but some combination of self-interest and the desire to provide for one’s family that turns the wheels of the capitalistic engine. And third, individualism and selfishness are not even remotely the same.
Individualism, in its ideal American variety, is formed in two parts: a powerful assertion of individual rights and liberties, and an equally powerful assertion of individual duties and responsibilities. Based on a Judeo-Christian concept of the rational human self in relation to God, family, church, community and creation, American individualism emphasizes the individual’s moral conscience and faith over against conformity or compulsion, the individual’s industry and ingenuity, and the individual’s obligation to provide for himself and his loved ones and others around him in need. That kind of individualism does not stand over against the civic good.
So the next time someone tells you, Americans are too individualistic, your response should be, No, Americans are too selfish, and some no longer understand what American individualism means.