Individualism and Collectivism

In ordinary political parlance, the political divide is normally framed in terms of “right” and “left.” There is a solid foundation for why these labels are helpful, but the terms themselves are vague, broad, and inherently subjective. What does it mean to be “right,” or “left?”

As a result of the ambiguity, libertarians have offered the public an alternative scale: on one side, you have the “collectivist,” and on the other, you have the “individualist.”

According to a reliably libertarian source, the Ayn Rand Lexicon, collectivism has the following definition:

Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group—whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called “the common good.”

By contrast, individualism:

Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.

Being so concrete, so accurately descriptive of popular political movements, and so prescient today, it is a profoundly attractive alternative measure of one’s political orientation.

Yet nothing has been so spiritually disastrous in the last several hundred years as the separation of these two from each other. The very framing of these as antithetical opposites, rather than as complimentary parts of a whole, is a presupposition that is neither obvious nor self-evident. Libertarians may point at collectivism (a la communism, the state in general, etc) as the source of immense suffering, but it was not collectivism per se, but collectivism sans a complimentary respect for the individual. In other words, separation of the collective from the individual. Humans have always lived in collectives, and been accountable to them. The “collectivism” of “collectivists” is not unique to the 19th and 20th centuries.

Likewise, communists blame capitalism, or radical individualism, for the dehumanization, oppression, abuse, and exploitation of the poor, women, and foreigners. They believe that a realignment of allegiance to the collective will resolve these problems. But history has demonstrated their efforts to be counterproductive and ineffective. “Collectivism” is not the answer to individuals… and how would you punish an individual without punishing part of the collective? Or free a part of the collective without freeing many individuals?

To clarify the issue, we should establish some more basic definitions:

Collective:

1:  denoting a number of persons or things considered as one group or whole <flock is a collective word>

2a:  formed by collecting :aggregated
of a fruit:multiple

3a:  of, relating to, or being a group of individuals
b:  involving all members of a group as distinct from its individuals collective action>

4:  marked by similarity among or with the members of a group

collective

interests of the town>

5:collectivized or characterized by collectivism<collective farming><collective communities>

6:  shared or assumed by all members of the group <collective responsibility>

collective

opinion of the staff><collective guilt>

Notice in particular definition three. A collective, by definition, is formed of discreet individuals.

Individual:

obsolete:inseparable

2a:  of, relating to, or distinctively associated with an individual individual effort>
b:  being an individual or existing as an indivisible wholec:  intended for one person individual serving>

3:  existing as a distinct entity :separate

4:  having marked individualityindividual style>

Not listed, but potentially worth adding, could be “constituent element of a group.”

Long before the discovery of what we call atoms, philosophers sought out the smallest components of matter that could not be divided any further. Ironically, atoms are divisible, into protons, neutrons, and electrons (which themselves may be divisible), but the point is that atoms, while being individual–i.e., “inseparable”–are also the subcomponents of matter itself, by definition. That is why philosophers wanted to learn about them in the first place.

Many modern libertarians argue that the state “does not exist,” that only individuals exist. This is analagous to saying that matter does not exist, only atoms exist.

We humans, like wolves, lions, ants, and fish, are social animals. We have evolved over millions of years living in tandem and competition with other people. Forming groups is as natural a by-product of our existence as fornication and flatulence. To talk about people as “individuals” is to misunderstand the species.

Here, both sides may object. Ultimately, the question of “collectivism vs. individualism” is about prioritization, not a mere binary. The intellectually sophisticated collectivist doesn’t deny the rights or the importance of the individual, but places greater emphasis on the importance of the group. Vice versa for individualists.

But this only digs deeper into the symbiotic relationship between the group and the individual, and puts the elaborate knot under a microscope, rather than a knife. The purpose of any politically valid group is going to be to serve the needs of the individuals within the group.

And any individual whose personal values and habits are not aligned with the interests of his group is not going to do a very good job of serving his own interests, contrary to the heroic image of the lone-wolf, rugged frontiersman, or cowboy, or mercenary. The objectivist or libertarian may object that they are not against voluntary groups; that they are in fact very much for voluntary association. But the element of time blurs what it means for an association to be voluntary. If I pledge 2 years of service to the military, but after three weeks, decide I’m done, do I have the right, as a believer in libertarian voluntarism, to remove myself from the obligation I’ve put myself in? This is not an easy question, and is best resolved in the manner it has always been resolved: rejecting the premise of the absolute sovereign right of the individual.

In other words, the individual derives his identity from the group, and the group derives its purpose from the constituent individuals.

All of this is essentially to say that “collectivism” and “individualism” are still bad ideas, but one is not the answer to the other, as both commit the same fallacy: rejecting the totality of human nature in pursuit of a better society. Both ideologies are like the King and Queen in Sleeping Beauty, forgetting to invite Maleficent, the darker side of human nature, to the birth of a new life, and thus dooming Aurora to a premature death.

As broad and ambiguous as they are, it’s still better to stick with “right” and “left,” (“constrained” and “unconstrained” views, for those who’ve read Sowell). The neurological differences between right-leaning and left-leaning people are relatively minor, but multifaceted. Given the number of values at play, interacting with the number of variables in our political environment, there’s simply no way to simplify the divide any further.

Better to get cozy with the complexity, and learn to get an intuitive feel for the psychological and historical forces at play. Odds are high that if you think you’ve deduced or simplified things, as both communists and libertarians believed they had, you’re either misusing language or leaving something out.

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