It is important to begin with the fact that all political discourse in Western civilization can be divided into two distinct camps; individualism and collectivism. Regardless of what political label you identify yourself with and or what labels you apply to others, the basic political ideologies can always be divided down to individualism versus collectivism. In other words, who holds the ultimate authority over a life, the individual whose life is in question or the group(s) that claim that person as a member (voluntary or involuntary)?
To make this distinction clearer, understand that all political thought is focused on answering this one simple question: should action be taken? Underlying that answer are the political principles that identify you as either an individualist or a collectivist. To help those trying to understand where I am coming from philosophically, and by default helping them to understand their own approaches to political thought, I am going to break down this fundamental question of political action into five basic issues.
It is also important to know that the vast majority of lay people, your average Joe and Jane, whether they are individualists or collectivists are well-intentioned and are only seeking the best possible life for themselves and others. What distinguishes the two points of view is not what they want for mankind, but in how they believe that should be accomplished.
Note that the same cannot be said for the political class that dominates much of our political discussion today, for these are power hungry people determined to maintain control and power (politicians, globalists, etc) over everyone regardless of political leanings. For the political class, they always side with collectivism by theory and practice because without the power to act in a collective manner or to speak as the group representative, they would lose both control and power. While it might sound strange, there is such a thing as an individualist state versus a collectivist state and the deciding factor is how the members of that society approach the fundamental political question: should action be taken?
There are five specific ideas that define the principles separating collectivism from individualism: The source and nature of human rights, the relation of the individual to the group, use of force in social context, equality under the law and finally the proper role of government. Understanding where you stand on these five topics will identify the principles you use to answer the question: should action be taken? They will also help you understand why you are an individualist or a collectivist.
The first is the source and subsequently the nature of human rights. Where do we derive our rights from? There are two specific options: rights are existential and intrinsic or rights are conditional and granted. In paraphrasing Descartes, the individualist approach is “I exist, therefore I have rights.” This is seen clearly in the Declaration of Independence, one of the foundational documents of American political thought, by the acknowledgment that men come into this world equal and are granted by their existence certain unalienable rights. In other words, right are existential and intrinsic to the individual and the proper role of government is to defend those individual rights.
Contrast that with the approach of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration.” In other words, the UN grants your entitled rights because they voted on them and determined what they are. Your rights have been agreed to, voted on, approved and therefore passed on to you.
It does not matter how closely they seem to agree with the prior version, the difference is in the source of the rights. For the individualist, the source is their own existence. For the collectivist, the source is the highest governing political body. See the difference?
Notice that it is the political class that retains the authority in the collectivist approach. Which means, if you change the appropriately legalized documents, you can change the rights. Whereas with the individualist approach, it does not matter whether or not a political body agrees, the rights of an individual still exist because the individual exists. To put it more sharply, in an individualist state the role of the government is to guard the rights of the individual, but in a collectivist state, the role of the government is to grant rights to the individual. The state also gets to determine who qualifies to receive these granted rights.
This takes us further into the origin of government power. If rights are intrinsic to the individual and derived from the individual, then the only rights a government may legitimately possess must also derive from the individual. If an individual can only grant to the government rights the individual already possesses, then the government cannot create laws or take actions that are not based on rights granted to it by the individual. If it does create laws or take actions that are not based on rights of the individual, it then becomes a power unto itself and the slide into tyranny has begun.
If rights, however, are derived from the government, then the government already has ownership over the individual and the only difference between such a government and tyranny is the level of totalitarian control the government chooses to exercise at any given moment. In other words, there is never any true difference between a collectivist state and a totalitarian state. They are one and the same.
Think of it like this. If I hire a guard to protect my business, the guard does not have the right to tell me when to open my store, which customers to serve, what products or services to provide, where my kids can go to school, etc. If, however, my business is being protected by the Mafia as part of a protection racket, while they are nominally still protecting my store, they also can exercise the right to tell me when to open my store, which customers I should serve, what products or services I should provide, where my kids should go to school, or risk the loss of “protection”. See the difference? Both are sources of protection for my business, but if the protection is derived from my right as the owner it is a completely different scenario than if the protection is granted to me by the Mafia as a “protected business owner”. Did I just compare a collectivist government to the Mafia? Yes. Yes, I did.
So where do you sit on this principle? Do you believe the source of individual rights comes from the individual or from the collective?
The next principle is the question of the relationship between the individual and the group. Which is superior to the other? Which is more important? The collectivist approach on this issue starts with the supremacy of the group and the recognition that the group has rights that are more important than the individual’s rights. It is commonly expressed as “for the greater good of the greater number.” It is ok then to sacrifice an individual’s rights or even an individual’s life for the common good of the group. If you believe that individual rights derive from the group, you are already in this camp because it is the power of the group to grant such rights that establishes its supremacy over the individual. In other words, the collective is the source of rights and is therefore superior to the individual. You hear this echoed in the now infamous gay wedding cake legal case. Here the rights of an individual were deemed to be subservient to the rights of the group. While few would argue that a business owner must serve everyone who comes into their establishment (e.g. no shoes, no shirt, no service), the freedom of this business owner to exercise that individual right was negated by the state who deemed the motivation for exercising that right to be unjustified. This could only happen in a collectivist state where the group is superior to the individual.
In the individualist approach, however, there is no group. There is no collective. There are no collective rights. Since power is derived from the individual, the group cannot exercise a right the individual does not have and which they cannot grant. In this reality, the individual has granted authority to act on their behalf to other individuals and those individuals then are constrained by the same limitations that the individual possesses.
If an individual A cannot tell individual B that they have to bake a cake for individual C, then individual A cannot grant that power to individual D. Nor can Individuals A, E, F, G and H get together and elect individual D to a political office to do the same. We are still dealing with individuals acting on behalf of individuals. The group does not exist except as an abstraction we create in our minds.
The group or collective is merely many individuals and nothing more. Aggregating individuals together does not change the essence of being an individual and it does not create a new tangible entity that exists separately from the individuals who are the essence of any group concept. If rights are derived from the individual, grouping that individual with other individuals does not lessen their individual rights in any way nor does it grant new rights to the aggregate grouping.
Thus, the founders of America recognized that the weakest and most threatened minority will always be the minority of the individual. Because of this they founded a republic, not a democracy. A republic limits the power of the government in such a way to protect the rights of the individual, while a democracy subjugates the individual to majority rule or more accurately to the tyranny of the majority.
So where do you sit on this principle? Does the group exist as a tangible, concrete entity that has rights of its own that are superior to the rights of the individual? Or is the group an abstract concept used to describe many individuals some of whom can be empowered by other individuals to act based on the intrinsic rights the individual possesses?
This brings us now to the concept of social responsibilities. Collectivists view themselves as social engineers using the power of government to accomplish vitally important social goals for the greater good. You can always spot a collectivist by their reaction to everyday problems. The kid across the street drives too fast down the road. Pass a law. The man across town acts like a bigot in public. Pass a law. There is litter on the road. Pass a law. There is racism in the system. Pass a law. Kids in school do not eat properly. Pass a law. In the collectivist view every social problem has a collective solution via the creation of more laws. Instead of taking personal action in any of these scenarios, they choose to use the power of the government (violence) to coerce the behaviors in others they wish to see. They are the Dolores Umbridges of the real world. One more rule, one more punishment and everything will all be better.
To the collectivist, social responsibilities are created by the group’s existence and the group has the right to compel compliance with its dictates. The only individual responsibility is to follow the dictates of the group and not to resist. This impacts something as benign as charity. The collectivist forces everyone to be charitable by taking wealth from them with the threat of implied violence. In their mind, the ends justify the means. It is no longer charity, but theft disguised as compassion.
In the individualist’s world, however, things take a dramatically different approach. To paraphrase Uncle Ben of Spider-man fame, “with great rights, come great responsibilities.” The individualist sees a world where he or she is free to do as they please, but they must also bears the rewards or consequences of their own choices. Do they want to eat? They need to find a means of procuring a meal. Do they want to feed their family? They need to find a reliable means of procuring meals on an ongoing basis. Do they like their streets to be clean? They should not litter and they can pick up after those who do. They don’t like that the kid across the street drives too fast? They should establish a relationship with them and find out the motivation for that behavior and help them find a constructive outlet for that love of speed. The man across town acts like a bigot in public? Defend those he attacks, and better yet establish a personal relationship with him and find out why he acts the way he does. It is far easier to send the police and lawyers after someone that to be a real human being and engage with people. It is messy and chaotic to be an individual and responsible for one’s own actions.
The individualist recognizes that he does not have the right to compel others by force so he also recognizes that he cannot grant that power to someone else on his behalf. His response to the problems he encounters in his everyday life is to find a solution or a work around. Does he need to move heavy furniture? He must persuade others rather than coerce them by force. Does he want a better society? He must choose to be a better person and persuade others to become better people voluntarily. The individualist state is built on the same principle of voluntary cooperation.
An individualist would have it no other way. Recognizing that having rights is one side of coin and that responsibility is the other side, the individualist acts accordingly. The individualist does not require the artificial limitations of choice by politicians or legislators. The individualist does not welcome the intrusion of other individuals into his rights or responsibilities and would not allow his or her own rights or responsibilities to interfere with other individuals’ rights and responsibilities. This allows for an individual to either be charitable or not to be charitable, to be generous or not, to be altruistic or not. The individual recognizes that to use force to take wealth from someone even to accomplish a good goal is still theft. The ends do not justify the means.
So where are you on this topic? Do you believe that the group has the right to use the threat of violence and force to coerce individual behavior to engineer a better world? Or do you believe that a better world is created by individuals taking personal responsibility for themselves and their communities on a voluntary basis? Do you believe the ends justify the means, or do you believe the means are just as important as the end?
We see that so far if you believe that rights are derived from the group, that the group is superior to the individual and that the individual can be forced to comply with the dictates of the group, you are a collectivist. On the other hand, if you believe rights are intrinsic to the individual, there is no group only many individuals with rights and responsibilities and no one has the right to coerce another individual, then you are an individualist. We have now arrived at the concept of equality. Understand that we are speaking about equality under the law and not inequities brought about by personal choices and actions.
In the collectivist approach, the law is to be used to rectify observed injustices or inequities within the group. Their approach is equality BY the law instead of equality under the law. Following the path we have outlined already, it would be logical to end up at this point. Individual rights are granted by the group, the individual is inferior to the group and the group can force the individual to comply with the wishes of the group. Therefore, if the individual or members of the individual’s subgroup are identified as having caused an inequity to exist by misuse of rights and privileges under the law, it is right and proper to punish that individual or sub-group of individuals to correct the situation. In order to do this, the group must create and identify the various sub-groups existing within the group. Herein lies the inequity of the approach.
The group does not exist, it is an abstract. So individuals can arbitrarily claim to speak for the group then arbitrarily decide that sub-groups exist and also define the sub-groups as containing specific individuals. Because they can assign living and dead individuals to these artificial sub-groups, they can also assign ‘crimes” to the sub-group committed by deceased individuals unrelated to the living individuals assigned to the sub-group. They can then take punitive action to correct the social inequities created by the actions of the deceased members of the sub-group against the living members of the sub-group even though the living members of the sub-group committed no crimes and did not benefit from the alleged crimes of the deceased members.
For example, there are two sub-groups; those who wear cowboy hats and those who wear bowler hats. In the 1800’s people wearing cowboy hats robbed people wearing bowler hats who also ran businesses. This allowed people wearing cowboy hats who robbed people wearing bowler hats to go and buy land. This proved to be very profitable for some of the cowboy hat wearing people who robbed bowler hat people and bought land. It proved disastrous for some of the bowler hat people who lost their businesses because of the robberies. Jump forward into the 2000’s. Today there are very few people wearing bowler hats and even fewer still who wear bowler hats and run businesses. There are, however, lots of people who wear cowboy hats and own property. So, in order to correct this social injustice, cowboy hat wearing people who own land need to be taxed to provide a fund for sending bowler hat people to business school so we can increase the number of bowler hat people who own businesses. If the cowboy hat people claim that this is unfair it just proves how much they must hate bowler hat people just like the cowboy hat wearing people who robbed the bowler hat wearing people in the past and further proves the necessity of this corrective action by the group.
This is the entire conceptual construct for collectivists when creating sub-groups within the larger group to justify coercion of individuals. Artificial sub-groups that are created without regard to any action on the part of the members of the group. Now in reality the bowler hat people today have as much access to business school as did any of the prior bowler hat people and no cowboy hat people have done anything to prevent them from attending business school. But the creation of these artificial sub-groups creates artificial aggrieved classes of people that the collectivist must correct by application of coercive force. This is the equality BY the law approach of the collectivist and is always applied to sub-groups and never to individuals. It is the basis for identity politics.
In the individualist approach, it is equality under the law that is sought because the minority most in danger will always be the minority of the individual. What the individual seeks from the law is equality of treatment for all individuals. There is no room for the creation of sub-groups with special advantages or privileges under the law. That arbitrarily places the rights of individuals allowed into that sub-group above the rights of the single individual. That is not equality under the law.
Since the individual is responsible for themselves, they only require equal protection of everyone’s rights by the government. Nothing more and nothing less. All rights of all individuals equally protected. This approach negates the social engineering of the collectivist. It simply states that all individuals have the same rights and responsibilities. The proper role of government is to safeguard those rights and nothing more. The individualist holds that if you want a better society, be a better person. The collectivist holds that if you want a better society, write better laws, build better programs, enforce better quotas, institute preferential treatment of sub-groups, etc.
This concept brings us to the final principle: what is the proper role of government? For the collectivist, the role of the government is to be a positive or active force for good. Government should take charge of all affairs of men in order to ensure fairness, and it should be the great organizer of society leading it into a better and better state. For the individualist, however, the proper role of government is a negative one. It is only designed to protect. They recognize that if government is to give to some, it must take from others. Once the government has the right to take and to give, the rights of the individual are lost. It always leads to the total loss of freedom. As the popular saying goes, a government powerful enough to give you anything you want is powerful enough to take away everything you have. All the individualist seeks from a government is the protection of all lives, all property and all freedoms and nothing more.
Back now to the fundamental question of politics: should action be taken? Recognizing that the state is merely individuals acting on behalf of other individuals, the individualist would answer, does it protect the lives, liberties or properties of individuals from aggression by other individuals? If the answer is no, there is no need for political action. If the proposed action includes violation of any of those elements or of the inherent rights of any individual, the answer must also be no.
The collectivist would answer, what does the law say about it? If the law is silent, does the state need to draft new legislation to deal with this new issue? If the law already exists, does it need amended or expanded to include new protections and punitive actions? Is there a sub-group at risk the state should subsidize to expand the reach of government assistance? Is there a tax incentive in place and should it be increased or decreased? What entitlements can be established to prevent this from occurring in the future and what unapproved behavior can we tax to offset the costs? Are there norms, controls or standards that need to be created and enforced? Notice that in the collectivist approach there is no thought or concern for the individual outside of that individual’s sub-group or group identity. The individual is of no concern to the collectivist, just the sub-group identity.
There you have it. The differences between collectivism and individualism in a nutshell.
|Human Rights||Exist within the individual||Are granted by the state|
|Supremacy||Of the individual||Of the group|
|Force||Is not to be used against others||Can be used against individuals|
|Equality||Of the individual under the law||Of the group by the law|
|Role of Government||Is to protect life, liberty and property||To create a better society, to be a moral force in society|
The true political spectrum:
0% Government <—————————————————————————————>100% Government
Individualism Versus Collectivism
You can call yourself by any political label you choose, but understand that through the lens of reality, you are either a collectivist or an individualist. I have chosen individualism and I will advocate for it as it is the best approach for any society and greatest means of protecting the rights of all people. It is the path of liberty so clearly laid out for us by our founding fathers. It is freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The path of the collectivist will always lead to tyranny even if you have the best of intentions in mind when you choose it.
These five principles are not my creation, but I fail to recall where I originally encountered them in the thousands of books i have read. So if you recognize them and know the primary source, please contact me and let me know. Thanks!