Individualism vs. Collectivism

by Mark on November 20, 2012 · 4 comments

One important issue that so many people fail to recognize is that a person can dislike certain aspects of society while believing strongly that it’s not the government’s job to try to fix it. For example, I obviously don’t like poverty, but I also don’t think it’s the government’s job to eliminate it. My viewpoint is based primarily on morality and secondarily on effectiveness.

For one thing, government must violate our individual rights to try to accomplish this objective, which is immoral, and for another, the government’s actions historically have been counterproductive. Astonishingly, both the morality and effectiveness of government programs are pretty much ignored.

Are otherwise evil acts okay if it is the will of the majority?

From a moral perspective, all that seems to matter is that the stated purpose is to achieve some vague idea of common good. The idea that it could be immoral to attempt to achieve goals through coercion is never discussed. It’s interesting that the same people who would be aghast at the thought of using coercion in the course of stealing from someone have no problem if the goal behind the coercion was determined through the facade of democracy. The will of the majority supposedly makes it right.

For example, if John and Joe agree on a goal and decide to forcibly take Bob’s property in order to achieve the goal, few people would say that this is moral, despite the fact that it is the will of the majority (and they would be right to feel this way). However, what if you increase the numbers and have two-thirds of the population instead go through a more formalized process and vote on a goal that requires the forcible taking of the remaining one-third’s property? Then you have somehow transformed immoral thuggery into noble action and given it legitimacy. What’s the magic number of people to transform thuggery into democracy? I have no idea.

The morality of an individual and the morality of a group are identical.

In reality, what is right or wrong at the individual level is also right or wrong at the collective level. There is no difference. If it is wrong for an individual to take another individual’s property against his will, then it wrong for a government to do so. If it is wrong for an individual to initiate a fight against another individual, then it is wrong for a government to do so (such as starting a war). If it is right for an individual to use force in response to another individual initiating force, then it is right for the government to do so.

In other words, morality is not a variable that is dependent on the outcome of a majority vote. You could have a billion people unanimously vote to kill an innocent person, and it would still be wrong. There is no transformation of wrong into right through democracy.

Don’t results matter?

From an effectiveness perspective, all that matters is that the intentions are positive. If a politician dares to oppose a government program with a positive intention, the politician will be savagely criticized. If you oppose an “anti-poverty program,” you will be branded as heartless, regardless of how charitable you might be in your private life. Oppose a “jobs program”? Don’t you care about jobs? Oppose a “stimulus program”? Don’t you care about economic growth?

Meanwhile, actual results of government programs are ignored as politicians try to direct our attention towards all the wonderful noble intentions of the programs. The gap between the intentions and the results is massive. It’s interesting that the most prosperous societies are the ones with the greatest degree of economic freedom. The countries burdened by intrusive government intervention struggle mightily. It is completely irrelevant that the interventions invariably have positive intentions.

What is a “right”?

I’m a strong believer in individual rights. Rights are about freedom. Freedom to speak and write about whatever you want. Freedom to practice whatever religion you want. Freedom to associate or do business with whomever you want under any terms that you want. Freedom to pursue happiness as you want. We have the right to do whatever we want that doesn’t involve force or fraud, which is a violation of the rights of others.

These are “natural rights” that exist independently of government. Rights are NOT created by government. A “right” is a MORAL principle, not a political one. It is the job of government to protect these rights, as Thomas Jefferson so eloquently explained in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Live and let live.

I understand that under a system of liberty, individual rights, and voluntary action, people will not always choose to act as I would like them to choose, but I am willing to grant them that liberty as long as they grant me the same freedom in return. Under such a system, people only deal with others on a completely voluntary basis. Dealing with others against their will through force or fraud is immoral and should not be tolerated from individuals or from governments.

If a billionaire decided not to give a single penny to charity, I would vigorously support the billionaire’s right to make that decision. That is how strongly I believe in liberty and individual rights. Who am I to decide how someone should live his life? Who am I to decide how someone should use his property? Whom am I to decide how someone should be able to pursue happiness during the short time that he has on this planet?

We have no “right” to coerce others.

I am vehemently against the concept of rights that it is so common in today’s politics. These “rights” represent the “right” to coerce others. It boggles the mind that a system of rights could be based on legitimizing coercion, but that’s what it is.

A good example is the so-called right to health care, which gives us the right to coerce others to provide health care for us. The right to a certain minimum level of income implies a right to coerce others to provide that minimum level of income. The right to not be discriminated against by a business implies a right to coerce people into doing business with people they don’t want to do business with. There are a phenomenal number of examples where a so-called “right” legitimizes sacrificing our liberty. It is entirely inconsistent with a free society.

The fact that I’m vehemently against the redistribution of wealth through government coercion does not mean that I’m not compassionate or that I don’t care about the plight of poor people. I just believe that this is a job for private charity. No one should be forced to fund such programs that are inconsistent with their values merely because they are consistent with the values of politicians. Each of us should have the freedom to decide the causes that we think are deserving of our money.

The Fundamental Difference between Individualism and Collectivism

These two very different concepts of rights are at the heart of the difference between individualism and collectivism. Under individualism, the individual is of primary importance, and it is the individual that government seeks to protect. Under collectivism, the group is of primary importance, and the government acts in the interest of the “common good,” even if it means sacrificing the interests of individuals.

An interesting exercise is to compare these two moral systems in practice. The United States was founded upon the concept of individualism (although the institution of slavery was a glaring and heinous contradiction in this regard). The result has been a relatively prosperous and peaceful society compared to what has been achieved throughout history.

Even people who are considered poor in this country are FAR better off than the vast majority of the world and the vast majority of people throughout history. I am concerned, however, that the US has been gradually shifting towards collectivism over the last century and especially over the last few years.

Contrast the US with societies based on collectivism, such as the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea, Nazi Germany, most Muslim nations, etc. It is clear that the most brutal societies are the ones based on collectivism. This is because the individual is not protected under collectivism.

Collectivism has as a moral principle that it is right to force individuals to sacrifice for the sake of the common good. When you have this as a widely accepted moral principle, individuals get sacrificed en masse. The resulting atrocities are shocking. I gave extreme examples, but it just goes to show you what happens when you take the collectivist system of morality to its logical conclusion.

Such atrocities would be impossible under a system that takes the individualist system of morality to its logical conclusion, because each individual would be protected under such a system. The government would strongly affirm an individual’s right to his property, his liberty, and his life.

“The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”
– Ayn Rand

Collectivism doesn’t work fiscally or economically.

The impact of collectivism can be seen in its less extreme forms as well. It’s no coincidence that collectivist societies tend to accumulate crushing debt burdens due to unsustainable massive welfare states to pay for all the goodies that the people have a “right” to. The masses have the “right” to the property of others, which the welfare state dutifully hands out.

The demands to spend money for the common good are endless and never satiated, whereas the pool of sacrificial victims is necessarily limited. The result is that welfare states are invariably underfunded by taxes. Instead, they resort to financing the programs with debt, which places the burden on FUTURE sacrificial victims, who can’t object in the present. So much for democracy. Future citizens have no vote on the debt that they inherit from current deficit spending.

As Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

“I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”

I could go on forever. Labor regulations clearly have a positive intent, but they also raise costs and contribute to unemployment (especially for minorities, with black males being the hardest hit in the U.S.). Business regulations, highly progressive individual income taxes, and taxes on capital income (such as the corporate income tax) decrease capital investment by making investment less attractive (i.e. less profitable), and decreased capital investment leads to lower productivity and lower wages for workers. The negative impact of collectivism extends throughout society, and yet it is seldom acknowledged.

The Critical Choice

The superiority of individualism over collectivism is not just some idealistic dream that has no place in the real world. It is superior from a theoretical, moral, AND practical perspective. The practical effects of the various philosophies are clear to see.

So what is it going to be?

Karl Marx’s collectivist principle of “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”


Thomas Jefferson’s individualist principle of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The choice is yours.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 slehar June 29, 2015 at 2:27 am

Well said! Hear hear! Now I will send this on to my Liberal indoctrinated daughters, product of the Massachusetts Public Schools, in a vain attempt to counteract their indoctrination.


2 Mark June 29, 2015 at 4:01 pm

Good luck! Unfortunately, it has been my experience that most people cannot be convinced by way of rational argument or by educating them about objective reality. This has caused me no end of frustration!


3 Jay February 11, 2016 at 7:43 am

Wow, that is the best argument I’ve heard against collectivism 🙂
Can I just add my two cents: while Collectivist societies claim to act for the benefit of “all people”…they rarely do… in practice societies created by ideology of Collectivism are usually highly centralized oligarchies or even dictatorships …Actually the more collective ideology they have , the higher the centralization … Majority are usually “represented” by a class or redistributors (bureaucrats, politicians or a “great leader”) .. armed with Socialist or Communist ideology they decide for every individual how they should live their lives … and how they should sacrifice their interests for “the greater good” …that basically reduces majority into slaves… It also creates enormous corruption… The more rules and regulation society imposes on every individual, the higher level of corruption it creates…
So, those are 3 more drawbacks of Collectivist ideology:
1. Highly HYPOCRITICAL society… claiming to exist for the benefit of majority …in fact ruled by very small minority…
2. Extremely CORRUPTED
3. It breeds SLAVERY


4 Mark February 12, 2016 at 12:20 am

I agree. Hayek also wrote about how the rule of law is a casualty of central planning. Oh, well. It’s all for the “common good.” 😉


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: