Modern political debates, from the 18th Century up until today, are full of appeals to the ideas of individualism and collectivism, whether open or merely implied. People speak of “the common good” or “public goods” or “obligations to society” on one hand, and of “individual rights” or “individual freedom” on the other.
The late novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, is well known today for being an arch individualist who was very opposed to any form of collectivism. But what does it really mean to be an individualist or collectivist? Are the two views mutually exclusive? Is one or the other right, or is the reality a mixture of both? Here I will discuss what individualism and collectivism mean, which one or mixture represents the truth, and what the major implications of each of the views are for today’s moral and political debates.
Life is the Active Pursuit of Self-Sustaining Goals
The issue of individualism versus collectivism does not arise out of thin air. It arises out of the observation–whether explicitly stated or implicitly understood–that life consists of organisms that pursue goals that keep them alive. Lions find watering holes and hunt gazelles, eagles catch rabbits or fish, termites dig and build mounds for shelter, etc. The ultimate goal of this activity for any given organism is its continued life as the type of organism it is. (The origin of organisms in evolution has ensured that reproduction is a natural part of the life-pattern of each nonhuman species–i.e. reproductive behavior is part of an individual organism being the type of organism it is.)
The question of individualism versus collectivism is the question of what the living unit is for human beings–that is, what is the human organism that acts toward self-sustaining goals: is it the individual, or some group?
Individualism vs. Collectivism: The Basic IdeasIndividualism is not the idea that individuals should live like isolated hermits, nor the idea that they should never get help from others, nor the idea that an individual never owes anything to other people. Individualism is the idea that the fundamental unit of the human species that thinks, lives, and acts toward goals is the individual. This means that the adult individual can form his own independent judgments, act on his own thoughts, and disagree with others. He is not telepathically linked to other people as part of a “hive-mind” that does the thinking for him, nor is he inexorably governed in his thinking by economic or linguistic factors in his society. Each adult individual has the ability to consider what is in his own best interests. Each can act on his own private motivations and values, and can judge other people as good people to form relationships with, or as bad people to be avoided. Each can decide whether or not to cooperate with others to solve problems. Each can choose to think for himself about the conclusions that the majority of others in a group come to, accepting or rejecting their conclusions as indicated by his own thought.
Collectivism is the idea that the fundamental unit of the human species that thinks, lives, and acts toward goals is not the individual, but some group. In different variants, this group may be the family, the city, the “economic class,” the society, the nation, the race, or the whole human species. The group exists as a “super-organism” separate from individuals: It makes its own decisions, acts apart from the actions of individuals, and has its own interests apart from those of the individuals that compose it. Under collectivism, individuals are analogous to worker honeybees in a beehive. The individual bees don’t have minds of their own, and generally can’t “disagree” with the hive. Any bee that acts in a way contrary to the interests of the hive is a malfunctioning bee. If it permanently leaves the hive, it will be entirely unable to support itself and will surely die in short order. If the malfunctioning bee stays in the hive, then it will either be a drain on the hive or a threat to it, and it is entirely appropriate for the other bees to attack and kill it.
Collectivists see humans this way: In the most common left-wing variant today, “social democracy,” the society is like a beehive with its own interests. Thus, social democrats think it is often appropriate for the society’s leadership to punish any individuals that disagree with the “will of the people,” or that will not sufficiently contribute to what the leaders/majority deem to be the “good of society.” (2) (Modern social democrats are not full-blown collectivists; the political system they typically advocate relies on a compromise between collectivism and individualism. So social democrats don’t generally advocate full collectivization or the outright killing of dissidents. Real Marxist socialists and fascists, on the other hand, advocate for a very large degree of collectivization, have killed dissidents, and will again whenever they get into power.)
Other variants of collectivism take other groups to be like the beehive with its own actions, interests, ideas, moral character, etc.:
- Nationalism takes the nation-state as the group of importance. (“I have a duty to my country because it’s mine.”)
- Racism takes the race as the group determining an individual’s character and values. (“Deep down, all blacks are thugs.” “Deep down, all whites are racist.”)
- Marxist socialism takes the “economic class” as the entity that acts to shape history. (“The proletariat (workers) will unite to overthrow the bourgeoisie (property owners).”)
- Sexism takes genetic sex or cultural gender as the fundamental feature determining human thought and interaction. (“Deep down, all women are baby-hungry gold diggers.” “Deep down, all men would like to rape women. It’s only feminist subversion of masculinity and fear of governmental punishment that prevent them.”)
- Collectivism based on the family is so old and ingrained in most cultures that it doesn’t really have a name. One might call it “familial collectivism” or “blood collectivism.” Traditional religions, such as Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism are big purveyors of blood collectivism. (“Family is everything.” “Blood is thicker than water.” “Do it because he’s your brother; family ties are more important than selfish interests.”)
- Tribal collectivism is where one’s membership in a tribe is seen as the ruling concern of an individual’s life, often worth killing and dying for. (“Are you Ndwandwe or Zulu?” See precolonial America and most of modern Africa and Afghanistan for examples.)
Is Individualism or Some Variant of Collectivism True? Or is the Truth a Mixture?
If we start with the most obvious observation about human beings, we see that they are physically separated into individuals, (with the rare exception of conjoined twins.) They have separate bodies and brains, and move separately. There are no known physical links that allow the brain of one individual to influence the activity of another in any significant way. This observation on it’s own is not enough to establish individualism, since we have examples of animals that, while physically separate, are clearly “collectivists.” Ant and bee colonies are basically super-organisms that are made up of many physically separate individuals. The link between the individuals is not an immediate physical one, but a genetic one: Workers are genetically programmed to act in certain ways in certain situations, such that they automatically work together to sustain the colony.
But if we compare this with human individuals, we find that they are very different. Humans are thinking creatures that often disagree and do not automatically cooperate. There is no sort of group whose members automatically act in concert with each other–not a family, not a tribe, not a nation. Each individual learns from experience of the world and from conversations with others, along with personal thought: Students do not automatically understand the material that a teacher is trying to impart, but must think about it, practice it, memorize it, relate it to their individual experiences and the earlier topics they learned about in the subject. An Olympic male gymnast can have an identical twin brother who is a civil engineer and builds bridges for a living. Each of the twins is capable of very different actions and behaviors. So clearly, human genetics does not fully determine behavior, as it does in bees and ants. Instead, it is an individual’s thought and learning that determine his specific capacities for behavior, such as bridge building versus pommel horse. They also determine actual behaviors, such as buying a sexually active teen daughter contraceptives, versus whipping her a hundred times, based on Islam.
Nor does the “economic class” one is born into determine one’s actions, ideas, or future, as Marxism would have it. Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, James J. Hill, Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey all started out in relatively poor, “working class” circumstances and later became very wealthy employers. There are heirs to great fortunes that work hard, invest intelligently, and maintain the fortune, like William Henry Vanderbilt, and there are those that live a playboy lifestyle and squander the fortune, like Huntington Hartford. Some wealthy individuals fund advocacy for very low income taxes and free trade, such as the Koch brothers, while others advocate for moderately low income taxes and protectionism, such as Donald Trump, while still others advocate for higher income taxes and government regulation to “balance” trade, like Warren Buffett. There are rich, poor and middle-class people that are Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, socialists and Objectivists. All of this shows that Marxian “class interests” are a myth. (3)
Thus, for any form of collectivism to be true of humans, individuals would have to have telepathic connections to each other that require them to think and learn together, as one unit. They would have to be like the Borg in Star Trek: a linked collective of minds thinking in unison, or else needing to rely on others for certain logical steps in their thinking. But of course, this is clearly not the case. It is refuted by the personal experience of every individual, and by the aforementioned fact that people in all sorts of groups disagree.
Furthermore, in order for the truth about human nature to be a mixture of individualism and collectivism, it would have to be the case that people are in the above state of “telepathic interdependency” some of the time, or in some issues. Again, this is clearly not the case.
So the truth about human nature is pure individualism: Fundamentally, it is individuals that think, act, and live, not groups of any size or type. Groups must be treated as collections of individuals, not as super-organisms with thoughts or interests separate from those of the individuals that compose them.
The Implications of Individualism and Collectivism for Morality
Morality is a code of values and virtues to guide chosen human action toward some ultimate goal. The only reason morality is needed at all is that humans are living creatures with definite requirements for their long-term survival and flourishing, and they do not automatically act in accordance with those requirements. Human actions must be guided by thought, in order for them to achieve anything beyond the immediate moment. This is the proper role of morality: to guide human actions toward the sustenance of human life. (If morality consisted of the performance of moral duties purely for the sake of moral duties, it would be entirely pointless. Practicing morality would be like digging random holes in the ground with an excavator and immediately filling them in.) So the promotion of human life is the goal of morality, properly so called.
Individualism holds that individual humans are the sovereign entities that act and live, and this implies that the proper place of morality is to be a guide for individuals in how best to act, so as to achieve their own lives. Individuals are the living entities and the moral agents, so there are no “higher” (larger) units of humanity to which they must submit themselves.
Certain other individuals may be very valuable to an individual, and may contribute to his life tremendously as trading partners, teachers, friends and lovers. But it is still that individual’s own life–his own mental and physical well-being, or happiness–that is his ultimate goal. He exists as an end in himself, to live the fullest, happiest life that he can.
Collectivism holds that the living unit of humanity is not the individual, but some group, such as “society” or the nation. This typically leads to the idea that morality is fundamentally social: it is about the achievement of “harmony in society,” or “national unity,” or “healthy families.” For an individual to promote human life, collectivism would hold that he must pursue the “welfare of the group” as his ultimate goal. When the “welfare of the group” requires an individual’s sacrifice, as “judged” by the group, it is his moral duty to sacrifice as instructed. If the group says that an individual must die for its welfare, then it is the individual’s moral duty to kill himself as instructed. The individual is like a malfunctioning worker bee in a beehive that should destroy itself so as not to endanger the rest of the hive.
Collectivism is, as I showed in the third subtitled section, entirely wrong. If people clearly identified what collectivism meant, no one would be able to advocate for it in the modern world and be taken seriously; their complete defiance of reality would be too obvious. The way collectivism is actually advocated is subtly, by implication and by confusion, (some of it willful, some not.)
One especially common example of an implicit appeal to collectivism today is when someone says something like: “Successful CEOs and business owners didn’t become successes on their own; they had help from society, so they owe society something in return.” The implication here is that “society” is a singular moral agent who can help an individual, and can therefore be owed something in return. The individual has a moral obligation to “give back to the community” for any success he enjoys. That is collectivism, and false. The reality is that certain individuals helped an individual succeed to some extent, while others did not. Those that did help may or may not be owed anything, (besides appreciation) depending on whether the successful individual consented to their help, and whether or not they have already been compensated for their help.
The Implications of Individualism and Collectivism for Politics
Politics is the branch of moral theory that deals with the proper role of government in human life. Government is, by its essential and distinctive nature, the institution that is legally empowered to use force against people, when they are not immediately threatening to anyone else. (Anything that does not require the use of such force can be done by an organization that is not a government.)
Individualism holds that it is the individual that has a mind and can act rationally to support his life. But in order to act rationally, an individual must be free to act on his own judgment, according to his understanding of the facts. There is no “collective brain” that an individual can unquestioningly rely on to tell him what actions are best for his own life. Thus, individualism implies that each individual should have his own political rights, if he is to survive and be happy over a lifetime.
These political rights are rights to freedom of action, and in fundamental terms, they are the rights that the Founding Fathers of the USA believed in: the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to life is the principle that an individual may not be attacked and killed by others. The right to liberty is the principle that an individual may not be imprisoned by others. The right to property recognizes that humans need to use, control and dispose of certain physical things and the products of their work in order to survive and prosper by their own judgment. The right to the pursuit of happiness is a consequence of the prior three, and is included as a statement of the purpose for which they are protected. An individual has these rights, so long as he does not attempt to violate them in others by physical force or physical interference of any sort.
Individualism implies that the proper role of government is to protect the aforementioned rights of individuals, and nothing else (at least in regard to adults.) It only protects individual rights directly and retaliates against violators of rights after the fact. The government gains no moral power to violate individual rights by the number of people that support it, since that number of people is a collection of individuals, not a super-organism which supersedes individual lives and interests.
Collectivism, on the other hand, leads to the conclusion that, not only is it morally proper for an individual to “give back” to the supposed group super-organism, but that the group super-organism has the right to take what it judges it needs from an individual, including his very life if necessary.
Under collectivism, the individual is to the group as a toe is to an individual: if the toe becomes gangrenous and toxic to the whole, then it is entirely appropriate that it be cut off to save the whole. So if the relevant group is the nation, then the national leadership (who are held to represent the collective super-organism and speak for it) can decide what actions are “contrary to the interests of the collective,” and punish those actions. If the leadership hold certain types of dress, religious celebrations, sexual activities, or speech to be “detrimental to the nation,” then it is perfectly appropriate for the government to ban them. Inalienable individual rights don’t exist for collectivists. Individual freedoms are to be tolerated by the leadership only so long as their exercise is not “detrimental to the nation.”
If the relevant group is the family, (however that is defined,) then the government can either punish individual behavior that is held to “damage” or “disgrace” the family, or it can look the other way while the head of the family carries out the punishment. This is often how “honor killings” of girls by their fathers or uncles are treated under theocratic Islamic regimes. This version of collectivism is also the motivation behind Christian morals and laws against contraceptives in places like Massachusetts, Connecticut and the United States, generally. Individuals are held to have a duty to have children in married families, rather than having sex for their own pleasure, since, as the Southern Baptist Convention website says, “God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society.” And, to the extent that Christians take this primacy of the family over the individual seriously, they will see nothing wrong with laws enforcing “sacred family values” in “fallen and depraved” individuals.
In his famous “You didn’t build that” speech, President Obama relied on the idea of collectivism to justify “asking for the wealthy to pay a little bit more,” (i.e. forcing the wealthy to pay more through taxes, even though they already pay disproportionate taxes for the support of government and infrastructure.)
Notice how, from an individualist standpoint, Obama’s comments toward the end of the clip make no sense whatever. How does it follow from the fact that the wealthy have benefited from government services–that they didn’t give their prior consent to and that they pay for disproportionately–that they should pay even more for whatever Obama and other government officials have spent? It doesn’t. But if we understand what he means by “we’re in this together,” and translate Obama’s remarks into the explicit language of collectivism, he’s saying, “The wealthy are parts of the collective super-organism that have accumulated more of the super-organism’s resources than other parts. The super-organism is now exercising its prerogative to redistribute those resources more equally within itself.”
When collectivists speak of individualism, it is very often a straw-man. They indicate that individualism means “individual atomism,” where this is taken to mean that only the isolated individual matters, and relationships between individuals can be neglected in one’s own life and in scientific analysis. They put forward collectivism as merely the idea that relationships with other people are important in human life. Thus, they advocate a “balance” between individualism and collectivism as the reasonable position. But this is not what individualism or collectivism are, especially as understood by Ayn Rand.
The platitudes that collectivists frequently utter, such as “Humans are social creatures,” or “It takes a village to raise a child,” are quite vague and obscure the real issue. The issue is not whether humans can survive better or be happier with or without some sort of social interaction, but whether each adult individual can properly judge for himself whether to associate with certain other individuals, or whether he must mindlessly obey some group and pursue its alleged welfare as the ultimate goal of his life.
Not all group memberships are equally beneficial to an individual, and indeed, some of them are positively harmful. Were the European Jews in the Nazi extermination camps better off for having been in Nazi Germany? Were the gulag prisoners in Soviet Russia better off for being Russians? Were the Jonestown members who drank the poisoned Flavor Aid better off for having been Jonestown citizens? I think it’s pretty clear that all of these people would have been better off if they had been trained to survive in the region’s wilderness as children, then dumped at great distances from each other in that wilderness at the age of eighteen.
It’s also clear that the most collectivist countries are the worst for their citizens, while the most individualist ones are much better. The USSR, Castro’s Cuba, Nazi Germany and North Korea have all relied heavily on collectivism to justify their regimes. The United States, 19th-to-Mid-20th-Century Britain, and post-colonial Hong Kong have been the most individualist countries, and their average standard of living has increased the most.
Pure individualism is true, and to the extent it is adopted in a country, leads to prosperity and happiness for individual citizens. Collectivism is false in any degree, and to the extent it is adopted in a country, it leads to stagnation, drudgery and misery.
(1) My appreciation to Craig Biddle and The Objective Standard for finding this quote.
(2) Note that this is why so many leftists are constantly trying to brand individualists like Ayn Rand as “sociopaths.” In the leftist’s mind, the individualist human is like a malfunctioning bee that won’t accept its obligation to obey the hive and sacrifice for its alleged welfare. So the individualist must be mentally malfunctioning, (i.e. sick in the head.)
(3) When confronted with this issue, many Marxists will attempt to rationalize this issue away by saying that class interests do exist, but they are simply latent right now. They will not manifest until the classes develop “class consciousness.” But this is just arbitrary speculation with no empirical foundation or merit. The existence of Marxist movements in certain countries and periods is much better explained by the idea that people are individuals who tend to be motivated by the ideas they accept. This accounts for the fact that Marxist movements arose where Marxist ideas were most preached, not where Marx predicted they would arise: in advanced capitalist countries.
[Edited: 1-1-18: Changed quote for nationalism.]