The Importance of Being an Individual in a Collective
We discuss the importance of individualism and the complexities involved in balancing the spirit of Individualism with collective responsibility.
There is an inherent complication in discussing individualism vs. collectivism, that is that all collectives are made of individuals. Thus, it stands to reason, and is so, that liberalism is all about individual liberty and collective liberty (and thus demands collective equality to some extent to ensure its first principle of individual liberty; creating a constant push pull that results in classical liberty-minded liberalism and social equality-minded liberalism).
We may think of America as liberal, a nation rooted in the concept of rugged individualism, and not as collectivist (where a shared identity is put before individual identity and liberty). We may think this, because it is correct.
However, if we think of that as being “purely right-wing” we are laughably wrong in classical terms.
Likewise, if we think of socialism as a polar opposite of liberalism, or conservatism for that matter, we are also laughably wrong. Socialism puts equality before liberty, conservatism puts authority, order, and hierarchy before liberty or equality, but all three are ideologies born from the ends of reason. All three, in their purest form, are all ideological stances on how best to ensure all these “virtues of state” (liberty, equality, order, tradition, hierarchy, etc) for individuals and collectives.
The left and right are complex… but one of the main reasons they are is because individualism vs. collectivism have a ton of complex interweaving connotations.
The liberty to be an individual is left AND social equality is left.
Meanwhile, the authority of a group, baron, church, or king is right AND social hierarchy (the king that social, economic, and political inequality creates) is right.
But, oh complexity headache, forced social equality is what Communism does (essentially) and forced social hierarchy is what Fascism does (essentially). They both take these virtues to extremes, and in extremes virtues become vices (so says the Golden Mean theory).
Meanwhile, pure individualism, pure liberty, also creates social hierarchy as an effect (as the oligarchs of the third estate crown themselves philosopher kings with the help of special interest factions and their plebeian and proletariat admirers, if they aren’t instead rising up another interest like a despotic timocratic fascist or communist via the democratic system when it fails to account for the genera will and becomes corrupted by the corporate and specific wills of special interest factions), and tempering it means forcing some degree of social equality.
Ideally, with separated powers and an electoral system democracy can withstand the absolutist few, expressing the general will like a crowd guesses jelly beans at a fair. But special interest factions complicate this, and when those factions demand extremes, individualist or collectivist, democracy isn’t corrupted (if only until the next election).
In America, we want to have our cake and eat it too, and that is fine, but each of our nation’s sub-civil regions (Republican Party-ism, Democratic Party-ism, Libertarianism, Progressivism, social liberalism, social conservativism, the classics forms of each, etc) tends to take a hardline stance on left-right issues (shying away from the mix it would take to have nice marble cake fit for eatin’).
Pure individualism if left unrestrained (that is pure liberty) is just as toxic as pure forced social equality, and both are just as toxic as forced hierarchy. It is with political alchemy, just with regular alchemy (chemistry), that one is wielding a bunch of toxic parts to make a useful whole.
Look, I hate to break it to you The Objective Standard (the closest to right in my opinion stance outside my own), but you are trying to over-simplify a complex issue.
That is, you are trying to treat aspects of individualism as being fully removed from other aspects and advents of individualism.
Individualism isn’t one thing with one effect, it is many things with many effects.
Before I detail what I mean further, let me present a summary of the Libertarian theory i’m going to criticize:
They [Libertarians in general, but specifically as is implied by the above Objectivist Standard] say, “pure individualism and pure liberty is the best, because all collectives are made of individuals. Thus, when power is grouped in a collective, the head of the political body that arises will simply use the group power for tyranny. Therefore, it is better to have pure liberty and individualism, as it avoids consolidating corrupting power into a state-based body”.
The problem here is that this ignores the history of Oligarchy, and indeed, we find that Libertarian tend to side with oligarchs in modern politics.
Now, are they perhaps closer to right than others, sure, I mean I think so… but at least since Goldwater decided to honey-pot the States’ Right Democrats, if not before that, this rugged classically liberal mindset focused on an absolutist economy has had an air of toxicity to it.
Carnegie said in his Gospel, “while the law [of individualism] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race [the human race, the collective]”. Yet, Carnegie also said, “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”
If we were all Carnegies, then we would have no argument. The absolute Mises libertarian could be vindicated and I could go cry rainbows in my socially liberal soup. However, while the Cronyism of the Gilded Age was probably the worst factor, the Oligarchy of the Gilded Age was not without its vices.
We would like to believe that if it weren’t for government that the Oligarchs would have been Carnegies and that the invisible hand would do the rest… but this theory fully ignores the shadow (real but unofficial) and invisible (describing the effect of shared interest) governments that Oligarchs form as sure as a working man forms a Union. These forces can, will, and must arise “as if by an invisible hand themselves”.
What I describe here is simply the politics of the Third estate. When there is no first or second, the third while create its own first and second estate. Plato knew the answer to this, it was a Polity. Our founders created an amazing version of this, one that protected social equality (to some extent) and put power in the hands of an aristocracy.
Sure, it isn’t perfect, and sometimes we move too close to socialism and collectivism, when we do, there is real logic in remember individualism. However, when we go to far the other way, it is social equality that we need to remember (whether we address it like Carnegie or like Bernie, we need to address it).
Absolutism is not the answer, even when it is absolute liberty, absolute liberty isn’t desirable, neither is absolute equality, neither is absolute authority, or social hierarchy, or left, or right, etc, etc, etc.
Churches, Barons, Kings, and Citizens have always vied for power, but the worst mistake we can make is letting any of them have too much.
Now, should the people have the most power, I do think so. I am a Jeffersonian in that respect, even to the degree that a few people get hurt and the bottom of the pyramid looks less than desirable. If that is where a comfortable balance is, then so be it.
Should we err toward individualism, yes, I think we can make that argument. It isn’t like Hamilton disagreed, the argument of Federalism and Republicanism is over two version, not over polar opposites.
Does the government have a timeless passion for overspending noted by Smith, does a baron have a timeless passion for oppression noted by Smith, does a warrior often want battle as noted by Plato, does the spiritual one always want social moralism as is ever very clear? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
We do ourselves well to find balance, to the extent that balance is found in erring toward individualism fine, but to the extent that we just want to play with words to support our ideology (cough, libertarianism) then we have to think harder.
Individualism isn’t just one thing, it is a complex thing with different attributes. If we have too much collectiveness then we take away Individualism, if we have too much Individualism, we take away from the collective. We need to consider social equality vs. social hierarchy, social responsibility vs. individual liberty, and so much more (see more left-right paradigms related to equality and liberty). Not just the attributes of the ideology, but the real life effects as they occur over time on-paper and in-action.
These overly simple answers do justice to no ideologies “ends” (unless their ends are tyranny).
The ideal that the American Founders set forth and sought to establish when they drafted the Declaration and the Constitution and created a country in which the individual’s rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness are not purely individualist features, they are about LIBERTY AND EQUALITY.
Liberty and equality are mutually dependent, as are collectives and individuals.
There is no ethics in defunding assistance to the poor, you are confusing economic ideology with morality.
And this is what many modern ideologies do, they treat the economic sphere like it is the only sphere, but it is not the only sphere (it is just one of the fundamentals; consider fascism doesn’t even care about economy in its ideology and it nearly took over the world).
That doesn’t meant that one should consider only ethics and morals (the virtues of the moral and just) and not physics and logic (the virtues of economies and oligarchies), no more than one would consider only the virtues of democracy and liberalism (liberty and equality) or no more than anyone would consider one of those virtues on its own and call it a civil religion (cough, libertarianism).
Thus, the importance of individualism could not be clearer, it is a vital part, and maybe even the most vital part of the collective body. We have to fight to defend it, but one thing we must defend it from is tyranny. If we wish to defend individualism and liberty, then we must temper them with equality and collectivism.
All action is human action, but humans are social creatures in a society bound by social contracts, we expect life, liberty, happiness, and natural right to be applied equally, we may fear collectivism for its paradoxical effects, but we should take that as a warning that pure liberty and pure individualism on all levels themselves have paradoxical effects. It is these hidden effects which deteriorate systems and lead to tyranny. No despot or tyrant allows individuals to have liberty, even Oligarch-kings (in fact it is the Oligarch rising up in an environment of pure liberty that Plato offers as an example of a tyrannical man).
Speaking of Athens, the first account we have of tyranny giving way to democracy is when Solon equalized everything and created the roots of Athenian Democracy after the Oligarchs had taken over. We can’t be so simple minded or single minded that we forget important complexities like these.
Bottomline: It takes great humans to make a collective great, be they Lincoln, Carnegie, or Jobs. It also takes bad humans to turn a collective into a tyrannical mob. Also a tyrannical mob can form in the absence of great humans. Things are complex, but there is no substitute for heroes, individualism is important, that is why there is so much more to protect to ensure it. When we fail at social responsibility, the next Einstein or Eisenhower might not have to room to arise, when we fail at individual liberty, the next Einstein or Eisenhower might not have to room to arise. We don’t live in a bubble, we are individuals in collectives by nature, you can’t consider one without considering the other.