Kristopher Morgan, July 19, 2017
In political philosophy, individualism and collectivism are treated as two opposing forces that duke it out in an attempt to find justice. For collectivists, to quote Mr. Spock, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In politics, this idea leads to governments who willingly encroach on rights for the benefit of society. Individualists see this as the barbaric tyranny of the majority. The people have no power to violate the rights of others so neither should the state. While these ideas seem different, in practice they are actually two sides of the same coin.
In a brief article on collectivism, Armstrong Economics describes collectivism as a “term used to denote a political or economic system in which the means of production and the distribution of goods and services are controlled by the people as a group.” This usually occurs through the state. In socialism it means the state takes control through direct ownership. In interventionism, ownership may remain in private hands, but the state exercises control through heavy regulations and taxation.
Boundless explained individualism as incompatible with collectivism. “Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses the moral worth of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance while opposing external interference upon one’s own interests by society or institutions such as the government.” The economic corollary of individualism is capitalism, where ownership of property and control of it rests with the individual, and taxation and regulations are relatively low.
Sounds simple enough, right? Collectivists support state power to carry out the will of society when it conflicts with individual motives. Individualists think it completely immoral for governments to disrespect rights. How can these two possibly be one-in-the-same?
Collectivism In Practice
The stated goal of collectivism is to put decision-making power into the hands of the many over the few, or the one, through government power. Using the state as a means to accomplish this goal is entirely counter-productive. Governments are always a minority of the population. In the United States, the Federal Government is made up of 535 members of Congress, nine Supreme Court Justices, and one President. Even when local governments are taken into account, the legislators and executives are vastly outnumbered by the general population. This means when laws are passed and enforced, a minority is forcing their will upon the majority. While the idea of a minority representing the will of the majority of voters seems reasonable, there is simply no possible way they can know nor understand the values of so many people. Claiming to represent the general public is one thing, actually doing it is quite another. Not only do politicians lack the knowledge they need, but by codifying decisions in formal law, it becomes difficult for us to change our minds. For example, those voters who first supported the war in Iraq in 2003 are not in a position to stop funding it now. Is it not a little bizarre that we look at countries that are run by dictators, a single will forced upon an entire population, and call it a collective?
Individualism In Practice
Individualism, where decision making lies with private property owners, appears as though a minority of people are in charge. There are fewer rich people who own businesses than there are laborers, but the profit motive keeps this control in check. To gain profits, capitalists and entrepreneurs have to sell goods to consumers. Consumers reward those who satisfy their preferences by frequenting their establishments. The little acknowledged truth in these relationships is that everyone is a consumer. Everyone at minimum needs food and water to survive. Entrepreneurs who fail to satisfy consumers are put out of business by those who do. Since consumers drive production, and everyone is a consumer, the collective finds its power within the individualist framework. When we are free to make choices and live our lives as we see fit, with nobody using law to suppress our will, the outcome is a society that embraces diversity by respecting individual rights. Diversity is far stronger than pure conformity, as there are multiple approaches to solving complex problems.
Effects on Political Discourse
When a minority of politicians make laws that affect the majority of people, we can safely say the collective loses its influence. This is most visible in corporate welfare. Are there really citizens who would consider giving their hard earned money to enormous, multinational, corporations for nothing in return? If consumers preferred to give their money to said corporations, they would not need the welfare in the first place. Everywhere law is used, collective choice is diluted. This is a bold hypothesis, but luckily there is a way to test it.
The test for determining if a law truly reflects collective will is to repeal the law in question. A perfect example is the marketplace plans created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). At Obamacareplans.com, one is free to shop various plans created by the ACA. Being created by a matter of law, if this marketplace does not reflect true consumer preferences, it is a fine example of power weakening our collective choices. By repealing at least the marketplace portion of the bill, we can put it to the test. If it satisfies demand, it will stand on its own without the power of law supporting it. Entrepreneurs will declare it an efficient use of resources and maintain the business model. Consumers will frequent the marketplace and make their purchases. If it collapses, it will disappear and its resources can be put to better use.
I am a libertarian, but I also believe in the collective. At first I considered collectivist societies similar to The Borg in Star Trek. The borg are a cybernetic race linked to a single consciousness, all members sharing a single will. Though their actions are all directed towards the same goals, their personalities are completely replaced. An entire species is subjected to the will of a single member, in their case, The Borg Queen. How can it be called a collectivist society if the entire species is directed by the mind of one? They don’t celebrate differences in preference or diversity in thinking. All signs of autonomy are eradicated from the collective. To be truly collectivist, all members of a species must be able to make their own decisions and express themselves free from subjugation and coercion. By taking the allocation of resources away from consumer control, politicians create an environment where power trumps collective will. To be strong, we have to band together against centralized control. Those who use the word collective in conjunction with the idea of a society dominated through law actually want the wills of those around them replaced, similar to The Borg. Such a person may be described as despotic or tyrannical, but hardly collectivist. Power is the rejection of those around you. It is the need to dominate others instead of allowing society to absorb their individuality.
Individualism and collectivism are not opposing forces. The collective only has power if its members have control of their own lives. A government that has the power to encroach on any individual’s rights has actually seized power over the entire collective, as we are all subject to law. It’s no wonder the so-called collectivist societies in the 20th century butchered so many of their own people. How can society thrive if our individual wills are undermined? It is a contradiction. Perhaps the best illustration of this point was made by Martin Niemoller when he said:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
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