The Nature of Collectives and Individuals
All collectives are comprised of individuals, and all individuals comprise collectives; thus we can never fully consider collectives without considering individuals, or vice versa.
Think about it,
- A person born in civil society is part of, at the very least, the collectives of family, state, sex, and race. Thus we can say, all individuals are part of collectives.
- A group (or “collective”) is not a physical thing. It cannot act directly. Thus all actions of a group are at their core individual human action (even when individuals act in concert, or in accordance with the same will, the conceptual entity “group” is never itself physically acting).
Given the above, and noting that individualism means emphasizing the importance of the individual and collectivism means emphasizing the group, it calls into question ideologies revolving around pure collectivism or pure individualism (especially language that eludes a lack of importance of either).
The fact that all action is human action and all humans are members of groups (which are themselves incorporeal) has many implications. We discuss them below.
“Un pour tous, tous pour un; One for all, and all for one” – Alexandre Dumas
TIP: See related conversations on our individualism vs. collectivism, idealism vs. realism, and left vs. right pages.
Cultural Dimension: me or we.
TIP: Different real cultures are “more individualist” (like historically Britain and America) or “more collectivist” like historically China or Japan. These are comparative terms, valid choices, and we can see examples of both having pros and cons in practice. Although we can never separate the collective and individual fully, we can better understand the strengths and weakness of each style for different systems and sub-systems by better understanding their relation.
Liberal Ideas #3 – Individualism vs Collectivism. An individualist’s take on the debate.
TIP: In-Group is a term that describes a group we are a part of (that we affiliate with or were born into), and Out-Group is a group we aren’t a part of. See In-groups and Out-groups Explained.
All Action is Human Action
While we may consider a collective speaking on behalf of a group, this is a bit of a misnomer, as only individuals can physically speak. The Queen may use the royal “we,” but it is she uses the collective noun when speaking on behalf of the people.
Any action taken by the group always originates from individuals within the group. This is true even when the group unanimously agrees in democratic fashion, when many act at once, or when the marching orders come from outside the group.
People generally act in their own self-interest even if that interest is in concert with a group by happenstance. The exception is when people act in accordance with outside incentives, be that incentive economic or arising from laws, morals, or ethics hence the importance of laws.
Human Action | Robert P. Murphy. Mises called the study of Human Action praxeology, the general study of human behavior is behaviorism.
First, we must realize that all actions are performed by individuals. A collective operates always through the intermediary of one or several individuals whose actions are related to the collective as the secondary source. It is the meaning which the acting individuals and all those who are touched by their action attribute to an action, that determines its character. It is the meaning that marks one action as the action of an individual and another action as the action of the state or the municipality. The hangman, not the state, executes a criminal. – Mises Human Action p. 42
All Humans Act on Behalf of Collectives
While we may consider an individual like a CEO of a company as speaking on her accord, she is in truth, representative of some collectives which are influencing her, and which she influences directly or indirectly, consciously or not.
She may be CEO of company X, but is a member of the group, not a free agent. She must answer to shareholders and boards, to employees, to her political ideology, her home town, her university, to her family, to her church, and to her other collective affiliations. This holds whether she acts directly or not, officially or not, and consciously or not. She, as a member of society, can never fully remove the effects of her action from the groups of which she is a member.
“Individualism is a Disease” – Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev answers Shekhar Kapur. The only problem with pure individualism is… the other 7.2 billion people on earth who are part of your inherited collective “human race.”
TIP: Collectivism is often used as code for “Communism” in modern debate. It is used to insinuate an extreme form of collectivism. That isn’t fair. However, collectivism and individualism are essentially equal opposites (see the list of fundamental dualities). The only reason why figures like Friedman, Carnegie, and Mises may be “a little more right” in practice is that individuals are real and groups are groups of individuals. Thus, putting our faith in people, and allowing them freedoms and individual liberties, creates some amazing collectives. These include Carnegie’s Steel company, Rockefeller’s Oil company, Edison and Morgan’s General Electric, the Beatles’ Apple Records, and Jobs and Woz’s Apple Computers. This, however, is a statement on paradoxical effects, incentives, and sociopolitical psychology, not on the importance of individualism over groups or collectives. Without Jobs, there is no Apple, but with only Jobs, and thus without “jobs” or “investors,” there is no Apple). Simply, correctness is found in a balance of the two forces. Deciding which force we should err toward is a matter of strategy requiring intense analysis.
Milton Friedman – Collectivism.
TIP: Groups can possess a collective intelligence, but this term describes the combined collective wisdom of individuals in the group, not a physical thing. Even the bees’ “hive mind” isn’t a physical entity, and lets not ignore the different classes of bees or the importance of the Queen.
Can a Collective Act? Can an Individual Remove Themselves From the Collective?
A collective can act indirectly, but never directly. An idea cannot originate from the collective because it is incorporeal and thus cannot think or speak directly. However, a person can technically remove themselves from society (although George Buchanan supposes this could only be a mad person, as humans are naturally social creatures).
We can say semantically that the group is acting, that the class is acting, that the body is acting etc., but only physical entities can act as a matter of physics.
This is why, even though we can consider each member of the state equally sovereign, power is delegated to governments (and then to officials) who act.
Ideally, the actors of anybody act in a democratic and benevolent fashion putting their self-interest aside for the group, but it is unlikely in practice and actors with power have a tendency toward despotism and tyranny and corruption.
Human nature is one of both competition and cooperation. People are both selfless and selfish. Thus Smith’s moral sentiment is a saving grace, while pure collectivism, in which all are perfectly equal and act in perfect concert toward a shared goal out of pure selfless group interest is probably impossibly rare. Pure collectivism is found less often in nature than pure individualism. Individuals, like the Castaway on a deserted island, are real.
Cultural Dimension: me or we.
The Sociopolitical Implications: Balancing Special Interests, Corporate Interests, Public Interests
Given the above, we can never fully separate special interest from public interest, nor individual interests from a collective’s interests, or simply “never fully separate the individual from the collectives in which they are an affiliate of any type.”
The Paradoxical Effects of Self-Interest and Collective-Interest
A fully free-market only appears to be individualistic on the surface. A strict individualist stance in rights, liberty, economics, etc. inevitably ensures some collectivism as an effect. Consider monopolies where employers work together to set prices, or sweetheart deals between powerful agencies, businesses, or interest groups.
Likewise, a fully centralized and state-controlled market may appear to be collectivist on its surface. A leader must delegate, and hierarchies must be created; hierarchy creates aristocrats and barons. This invites in some amount of individualism and special or corporate interest that is not strictly the public interest.
A tyrannical government in control of an otherwise socialist nation is one example of this, but even in the very well regulated benevolent U.S. agencies, there are different pay-grades and privileges for the highest class of employee.
A strict collectivist stance inevitably ensures some individualism, and a strict in individualist stance inevitably ensures collectivism as an effect.
Behaviorism: Part 2. What drives human behavior? Incentive. Why doesn’t Communism work, it kills incentive. Simple as that. Why doesn’t pure individualism work? It does, it just isn’t just to the other members of society, figuring out where to go from there is complex.
Consider Carnegie’s thoughts on how individualism can benefit the collective (how something that is seemingly anti-collective arguably has the paradoxical effect of benefiting the collective):
The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free. Individualism will continue, but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself. Of such as these the public verdict will then be: “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” [Self-directed Philanthropy], in my opinion, is the true Gospel concerning Wealth, obedience to which is destined some day to solve the problem of the Rich and the Poor, and to bring ‘ Peace on earth, among men Good-Will.” – Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth
Social Systems Tend to Exist in Oscillation, Not Isolation
The paradoxical effects of pure ideologies can be understood by taking a close look at the nature of dualities (especially in respect to social systems, be we having a debate over Hume’s fork or liberalism vs. conservatism).
Social systems don’t tend to exist in isolation (where action has no impact on other systems), rather they exist in oscillation (where there a constant ebb and flow of impact and effect). They aren’t steady, and one is not perfectly sustainable without the other. They either temper each other through balance or unbalance each other due to a lack of temperance.
People have gloriously dived headlong into the ills of each form of social organization, but we haven’t yet found the perfect moderation of collectivism and individualism. This is something to keep in mind if we wish to ensure liberalism and ward off future tyrants of industry or government.
The state is a collective of individuals, all action is human action, all humans are individuals, individuals form groups, when individuals organize into groups and groups organize into larger groups, the state is born.
The Tao says (paraphrasing), “know the individual, but stick to the collective.”
What does this mean? It means know your individual importance, but never forget you are part of a family, many tribes, a state, a nation, the world, and the universe. Humans are social creatures, and we are accountable for our individual actions either legally in terms of civil law, or simply ethically and morally, we all have a social responsibility.
FACT: Studies have shown that, on average, naturally obey authority figures. If someone of authority tells you to act in a way that is against your morals, and you are only acting on the order, whose action was it? Can we really consider only the one giving the orders or only the one doing the action?