The Difference Between Collectivism and Individualism

Collectivism describes ideology (political or otherwise) that favors the collective, like-wise Individualism describes ideology that favors the individual.

The Basics of Individualism and Collectivism

Generally speaking, individualism favors the individual and collectivism favors the collective, simple as that.

However, there are some additional complexities to consider (especially when the terms are used in a political sense) as the terms speak to the heart of the most complex aspects of political left-right and are fundamental principles behind the government types and liberalism and conservatism.

The Complexities of Individualism and Collectivism

The first complexity is that the two terms are not opposites in every respect.

All collectives are comprised of individuals and all action is human action, so, despite our social nature and collective intelligence, there is a complexity.

Consider, the favoring of the liberty of the citizens of a group is called “individualism” (but really it is a very collectivist thing in many ways, as it is considering the individual liberty of each member of the group, considering each member as important, not just offering an anarchistic free-for-all).

Here we can express this complexity by considering the paradigms “individualism vs. anti-individualism” and “individualism vs. collectivism” (where anti-individualism is not “exactly the same” as collectivism, but both are “opposites” of individualism).

The second complexity is that both forms tend to have adverse effects in extremes.

Extreme excesses or deficiencies of both individualism and collectivism can all be considered “vices”.

A lack of individualism can mean a lack of liberty and extreme equality, an excess of individualism could mean total liberty but extreme inequality.

None of these extreme effects are simple, but we can generally say that extremes are not desirable.

Thus, when we start discussing these as left-wing and right-wing political ideologies we are going to have a complex situation. To avoid being overwhelming, lets consider these terms in a left-right “Golden Mean” chart:

Sphere of action (Thesis) Antithesis of Deficiency The Left-Right Balance (Golden Mean / Synthesis) Antithesis of of Excess
Individualism Favors Collectives. Deficiency of Individualism (anti-Individualism). Balanced Individualism Favors Individuals. Excess of Individualism (extreme-Individualism).
Collectivism Favors Individuals. Deficiency of Collectivism (anti-Collectivism). Balanced Collectivism Favors Collectives. Excess of Collectivism (extreme-Collectivism).

Now to add another layer to this, collectivism and individualism are also well thought of as overarching paradigms in which a number of sub-paradigms express exactly what we mean. This is vital to get in terms of left-right politics.

Consider, when we say collectivism vs. individualism we are really expressing the following paradigms and more (each of which should really be considered on its own): “liberty (left) vs. authority (right)social equality (left) vs. social hierarchy (right)globalism (left) vs. nationalism (right).

In most cases we can say, in left-right terms: collectivism (left) vs. individualism (right)… However, when we consider the authority needed to implement extreme collectivism, we can show how collectivism can have right-wing properties. Like-wise, we can make many cases for the left-wing qualities of individualism.

Lastly, and speaking to the above, we should also be considering this per-issue and in different “spheres”, for example we should not conflate social policy, with economic policy, with a per-issue stance, with how we want to work in a company, with how we want to work on a school project. Most good ideologies will tend to be at least somewhat “mixed” and very roughly “centered”.

There is nothing wrong with general stances on collectivism or individualism, and there is nothing wrong with looking to Mises or Marx, but hardline absolutist stances that don’t consider the complexity (in my opinion) are constantly underwhelming and creating unnecessary tension and misunderstanding in politics. So try to avoid those aspects by consider the details above, even Mises concedes that his pure individualism is good due to its democratic, liberal, and left-wing qualities (because its collectivist qualities so to speak).

Here I’ll ask you to do a quick review of collectivism and individualism as defined on wikipedia. The relation of collectivism and individualism to the aforementioned terms is a vital fundamental of politics, so it is smart to compare sources.

TIP: For more reading, see: The Importance of Being an Individual in a Collective.

The Left-Right Politics of Collectivism and Individualism

With the above said, Politically, in terms of left-right politics:

  • Any ideology that is authoritative is going to be “to the political right” of one that isn’t in terms of liberty (left, favoring liberty) vs. authority (right, favoring hierarchy and order).
  • Likewise, any ideology that favors “the many” equally is going to be “to the political left” of an ideology that favors “the few” individuals in terms of collectivism (left, favoring collective equality) vs. individualism (right, favoring collective liberty). This is important to consider in terms of social issues where “rugged” individualism can fail to protect the majority in terms of social welfare and social justice.

Having to consider both these paradigms at once creates a spectrum of possibilities that aren’t so easily described by only our two core terms (as one can see visually in the charts above and below). The following section will help one to make sense of those complexities.

This left-right chart shows the core theory of considering a liberty paradigm and equality paradigm.

This left-right model with explainers is one way to look at the basic 4 point left-right spectrum.

The Complexities of Individualism and Collectivism

In the west we generally value individualism, believing that each person matters as an individual (classical liberalism). That is very western and liberal in an absolute sense.

Consider, in an authoritative collective where liberties and rights are restrained, individualism is freeing, giving the individual a chance to shine, and it is “to the political left” of the authoritative state (in that it favors many individuals in the collective and favors their liberty; it is “to the left” of kings and monarchy so to speak).

Even when individualism results in some inequality, it is generally acceptable, and certainly still “to the left” of an authoritative collective in terms of liberty.

However, when it comes to a laissez-faire state failing to protect many individuals, and/or when inequality in the state gets too great, then collectivism can start to be seen as more liberal and “to the left” of individualism in terms of collective equality (social liberalism).

Thus, we have a constant complexity that arises from having to deal with more than one factor at once (from having to deal with liberty and equality for the individual and the collective), not only on paper, but applied to real life situations.

It is hard to argue that every-man-for-himself anarchy is to “the left” of a progressive utopia regarding social equality, or that the progressive social Utopia is to the left of anarchy in terms of individual liberty. Instead, these desirable and mutually dependent qualities play tug-of-war with each other.

This complexity can be seen in the political left-right itself and in the basic political ideologies: classical liberalism (which focuses on individual liberty), classical conservatism (which focuses on state-based authority), social liberalism (which focuses on state-ensured equality), and social conservatism (which pushes back against state-based authority and state ensured equality).

Given the complexity, collectivism and individualism are best understood as both comparative and absolute terms.

BOTTOMLINEThe term collective liberty can be confusing, as all groups are made of individuals. There is lots of complex conversations to be had here, but for the purposes of our conversation: When liberties are applied equally and/or benefit all, it is “collective liberty“. When liberties benefit some more than others, or when they benefit smaller groups more than bigger groups, it is “individual liberty“. Likewise, when the whole group exerts its authority, it is “collective authority“, and when “the one” or the “few do” it is “individual authority“. Each of these concepts can be talked about in terms of liberty, equality, left-right, and related back to the political ideologies. If that seems complex, it is only because these terms are at the heart of politics.

TIP: Watch out for people making arguments that cherry pick the meaning of collectivism and individualism. It is really hard to have a society that ignores the collective or individual and fully favors the other. Absolutist arguments for or against either are often more radical than most people’s actual opinions in practice (which tend to be “mixed”).

Collectivism and individualism as Comparative Sociopolitical Terms

Collectivism and individualism are typically used as comparative terms, rather than absolutes. They can be used to describe any ideology, but in terms of socioeconomics and politics, elude to the overarching debate over “how much authority a central government and large groups should have” vs. “how much authority individuals and small groups should have”, and if that authority should be used to favor individual rights and liberties or collective rights and liberties.[1][2][3]

In terms of sociopolitical systems, this is the debate can be seen as the one between socialism vs. classical liberalism. In terms of markets, this is the debate can be seen as being between free markets vs. regulated and subsidized markets.

This is a vast topic, so even just within the sphere of politics, social structures, and economics there are many ways to understand the subject and many complexities to consider.

Despite this complexity, to reframe the above before moving on, in general:

  • A collectivist favors groups’ rights and groups’ authority. They view a group as the paramount entity, and individuals as members of a group secondary.
  • An individualist favors individuals’ rights and individuals’ authority. They view individuals as the paramount entity, and groups as secondary. When discussing groups only, the individualist generally favors smaller groups (so States’ Rights is more individualist than Federal Power).

For example, objectivist libertarians like Ayn Rand are generally “individualists”, and social-liberals like FDR are generally “collectivists”. Some ideologies try to paint one ideology as good and the other bad, but a more centered position would argue that both individualist and collectivist cultures and ideologies are natural, have benefits, and merit examination.

Specifics aside, the overarching collectivist and individualist ideologies are at the center of cultures, economies, politics, societal structures, companies, interest groups, and many of the ensuing debates; Thus, understanding them vital.

We explain collectivism and individualism, especially in regard to socioeconomics, in detail below. First here is the Libertarian / Classic Liberal viewpoint (which is often the dominate viewpoint in this conversation; as they argue [very generally speaking] that since all groups are comprised of individuals, that individual liberty should always be favored). After the first video is a longer, but more balanced video, explaining how Japan’s more collectivist culture compares to America’s more individualist culture.

TIP: Using America as an example, one who favors states’ rights can be viewed as an individualist, favoring states over a federal government, or viewed as a collectivist, favoring states over people. Part of this is a matter of perspective, and part of that is a matter of using the term comparatively in context.

TIP: We can never fully remove the concepts of individuals and collectives. All collectives are comprised of individualsAll action is at its core, human action. With this in mind, absolutist standpoints on individualism and collectivism tend to be the most contested (just like an absolutist stance on the related concepts of equality and liberty). There isn’t much that works well in extremes, since the Greeks we have been assured and reassured that the key is balance.

Libertarianism Explained: Individualism vs. Collectivism – Learn Liberty. Let’s start by hearing a classical liberal view on Individualism Vs. Collectivism.

Japan and America: A Study of Individualism vs Collectivism. The concepts of the individual and collective apply to all aspects of life, not just politics. We will use economics, politics, social issues as a lens to understand the terms, but realize they can be applied broadly outside of socioeconomics. This video presents a balanced argument, and is by far the most informative I have found on the topic; it is also has the longest run time. Bookmark it for later if need be.

Collective Rights Versus Individual Rights

At the heart of the collectivist vs. individualist debate is the concept of individual rights vs. collective rights.

  • The term “Collective Rights” describes support of programs and laws that benefit the group. Examples might be concerns such as gun control, social programs, and public safety. They typically can only be implemented if supported by increased taxes and state authority.
  • Individual Rights” describes the support of programs and laws that benefit the individual. These might include gun rights, lower taxes, and fewer rules. Individualism often comes at the expense of group-imposed order and decreased funding (less taxes means more money for the group fund).[4]

The pro-individual view discussed above is presented well in the following video. This view isn’t wholly right on its own but is rather necessary to understand the merits of finding a common centered ground.

We have individual and collective responsibility, as individuals and collectives. Sometimes that is better ensured through individual liberty, and sometimes through joint authority.

As Alexander Hamilton is said to have said, “…Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”[5]

Collectivism and Individualism. This video presents the classical liberal (or in modern terms, libertarian) view that we must favor individualism as a society.  This socioeconomic view is shared by Hayek, Mises, and Friedman and was used in the Reagan era to justify Greenspan’s economic policies. It is a good starting point for the conversation, despite its obvious biases, as classical liberalism is the foundation of modern western democracy.

FACTLiberalism arises in the 1600 – late 1700’s as a response to the conservatism of the day (the divine right of kings), and is the left-wing ideology of its time. Today we may consider the views of Keynes and social liberal economists and politicians (who tend to favor a state intervention and a safety net) as left-wing, but in the 1600 and 1700’s favoring the collective meant “power to the people” via the free-market and individual liberty. This changed after the Robber Barons and the Gilded Age, but a modern libertarian will argue that social liberalism favoring the collective via authority is no different today than it was then.

FACTHumans are social creatures and selfish creatures. Our character is defined by dualities. When we deny either our self-centered or community-centered side, we start down a slippery slope. Both Individuals and the Collectives are necessary and have a contingent existence (as one creates the other). Every social group can be broken down to individuals, and every individual is part of an “in-group” that forms a collective (an example being a family).

The Classic Liberals’ Fear of Collectives Explained

In some political discussions, collectivism and individualism are discussed as extremes. The ills of one are represented alongside the benefits of the other (presenting a biased and narrow viewpoint). In these cases, the terms take on a different meaning as code for complete government control vs. individual liberty.

If we go to extreme positions, then the discussion shifts towards the merits of classical liberalism and away from the benefits of state-intervention (social-liberalism).

The main danger with collectives (private or public) is that they can result in overwhelming power for individuals within the collective.

When individuals in a state-endorsed collectives conspire with special interests in the private market, it is called cronyism.

Cronyism is essentially the kryptonite of free-market economists. First it’s a central fund, next it’s the well-intentioned western Marxism of Lenin, and one wrong turn later, we get a man like Stalin, an ill-intentioned dictator who used Communism as a form of tyranny!

The classic liberal economists did not trust people in politics with the power of the state behind them, but (in my personal opinion) are arguably overly eager to trust individuals in the private market.

There is real danger in erring too much toward the collective, but largely due to the same group and individual special interests that form in the private market (the private market naturally forms its own state-like entities).

Each has its pros and cons, but be warned, the classic liberals and libertarians will always put the individual markets best foot forward in a conversation. Read The Clash of Group Interests and Other Essays – Ludwig von Mises.

TIP: One is advised not to take Animal Farm (Amazon) or Atlas Shrugged (Amazon) as Gospel. Reality is nuanced and complex. Sometimes erring on the side of individualism is correct; sometimes erring on the side of the collective is correct. Those who suggest we always err on one side or the other should be questioned. This will leave us questioning Smith, MarxHayek, MisesFriedman, Greenspan, and others.

How Collectivism and Individualism Related to Left-Wing and Right-Wing Political Ideologies

People tend to paint collectivism and individualism as being left-wing or right-wing, but that argument seems simplistic. Collectivism and individualism are broad terms so that they can describe a right-wing, left-wing, or mixed ideology.

With that said:

Collectivism is generally leftist in terms of social issues and right-leaning in terms of authority when applied to programs that benefit the public, and individualism is typically right-leaning in terms of social issues and leftist in terms of authority when applied to individual liberty.

Communism Versus Anarcho-Libertarianism, Illustrating Collectivism and Individualism by Comparing Extreme Positions

To illustrate the above truths, we only need to compare some extreme political-social-economic phenomena that have thus-far just been used as examples.

Pure Communism is an extreme form of collectivism, and Pure Anarcho-Libertarianism is a form of individualism. The former political inclination being very left regarding public programs, but very right in terms of authority; the latter being very right regarding public programs, but very left in terms of individual liberty.

These conflicting viewpoints can be seen in the following two videos.

TIP: The videos in this section are meant to be extreme, as we are trying to illustrate the danger of extremes so we can accept that truism that neither the hardline Collectivist and Individualist is fully right.

POLITICAL THEORY – Karl Marx.

Milton Friedman – Redistribution of Wealth.

We can also, for example, consider the extremes when applied to the issues of slavery and indentured servitude in early America.

An individualist stance says people as individuals have the right to own a person as property due to skin color or due to debt (individual rights), a collectivist stance says the state can outlaw slavery and indentured servitude (collective rights).

Indentured servants vs Slaves.

Slavery – Crash Course US History #13.

Ultimately, a Dictator is an individualist tyrant, and a tyrannical mob is a collectivist tyrant. Either ideology can create a tyrant, and, of course, no society has benefited much from one of these.

Dictators, Tyrants, Authoritarian Government: “Despotism” 1946 Encyclopaedia Britannica Films. How does a National Socialist become a tyrant? Should the people have no recourse to stop a company from polluting their land for profit? Is an angry mob’s collective liberty better than the wisdom of a Supreme Court judge? Should people go hungry if there is no economic benefit in feeding them? Who is right, the workers at the Steel Mill or the Owner hiring Union busters? There are no easy answers, but there is dangers in extremes. 

Individualism and Collectivism in America

The idea of being individually important and famous can be described as individualist, the idea of rising up as a people and appreciating groups is collective.

Thus, we can say America has a very individualist spirit, and capitalism is a largely individualist ideology. Meanwhile, we can say public programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are collectivist, as are unions and even boards and shareholders in private companies (on which the high earners and CEO’s have individualist positions).

Individualism, Collectivism, and Morality – The Virtue of Moderation, and a Word Against Absolutism

As you may note by this point, The main theme here is that ideologies rarely work well in extremes. Despite any rhetoric from special interest groups, America, the Federal Republic of varied interests, is at its heart “mixed” (subscribing to neither collectivism or individualism).

People who take extreme “absolutist” stances on the above issues tend to be very loud. They will try to draw you to their fringe mindset, but of course, it is not an either/or thing. Instead, truth is found in a balance of the two concepts.

This is why we get social-liberal (Democrats) and conservative-libertarian (Republican) parties in the US, instead of far-right or far-left major parties winning elections.

Both individual and collective rights and individual and collective protections have merit.

How to Understand Collectivism Vs. Individualism Today

Individualism and collectivism, like left-right political ideology (where left is toward liberalism and liberty, and right is toward authority and traditional conservatism), isn’t just a matter of history, it is at the core of all political debate and the future of national and world politics.

How we embrace or steer away from globalization, workers rights, and more depends on our ability to understand the difference between collectivism and individualism, and apply that wisdom to the ongoing social-political-economic-moral debate.

All this to say, I am warning you against being swayed too far by the Marx’s or Friedman’s of the world. They are famous for a reason, their words resonate, and we can construct compelling arguments around their case. Yet we are both individuals and a collective; to deny either face in the mirror is to deny one’s true self to the detriment of all.

I won’t deny that I err on the side of collectivism, but of course, I’m only suggesting we stay close enough to the middle that we can meet there and make progress forward.

For the opposite position, but a well constructed one, see this Objectivist (i.e.Ayn Rand Libertarian) take: Individualism vs. Collectivism: Our Future, Our Choice.

TIP: If very roughly half of the individuals are collectivists, then collectivism is an aspect of individualism. Likewise, if half of the collective is individualist, then individualism is an aspect of collectivism. Thus, we are left with a duality of two positions, neither of which we can reject fully. This is an argument for embracing both, rejecting extremes, and the position that balance and nuance are needed to address complexity. Marx and Friedman (and their followers) are presenting us with too simple an answer. They get away with it only because it doesn’t work, and thus never really gets play-tested in a pure form. As such, both extremes become little more than an overly easy-to-digest rallying call in questionable directions.

Citations

  1. Individualism Vs. Collectivism
  2. Collectivism and Individualism as Cultural Syndromes
  3. Collectivism v. Individualism: A Reconceptualisation of a Basic Concept in Cross-cultural Social Psychology
  4. Individualism vs. Collectivism: Our Future, Our Choice
  5. The Constitutional Convention of 1787


"Understanding Collectivism and Individualism" is tagged with: American Politics, Competition, Cooperation, Epistemology, Left–right Politics, Liberalism, Liberty, Morality, United States of America

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