2012-08-27

Beyond "Individualism Versus Collectivism"

When I search Google for the phrase "individualism vs collectivism," I come up with approximately 280,000 hits. From what I can see, every link on the first page of those results is from an ostensibly libertarian website, except one, which appears to be a link to an academic study. The reason I bring this up is because it is becoming progressively more apparent to me that the whole discussion of "individualism versus collectivism" is a bit of a straw-man argument engaged in primarily by libertarians.

The Wrong Idea
The roots of individualism run deep, at least as deep as the 19th Century. The United States of America is, to many libertarians, a bit of a "golden age," a time and place in history where society is thought to have reached its greatest degree of libertarian freedom. American Existentialism as an artistic movement was in its heyday. So we have, for example, quotes from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, proclaiming: "The less government we have, the better, — the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal Government, is, the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual." We have the likes of Oscar Wilde instructing us: "Art is individualism, and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine."

Of course, Marx's "Scientific Communism" was also born in the 19th Century, winning many converts. For this reason, perhaps, the two movements came to a head as ideological poles. On the one hand, there was American Existentialism, thought to be an evolution of Enlightenment philosophy, born in the freest nation the world had ever known, and urging individuality, singularity, and freedom. On the other hand, there was German Socialism, urging class-cohesiveness, community, collective action, and syndicalism.

This yin-yang of political philosophy makes for a compelling story about ideology, and it did indeed make a tremendous impact on the world. It has colored the view of all of us since it was first posed as a dichotomy. But taking this view of the world seriously is a dangerous mistake, because it is wrong.

The Social Animal
In the "collectivist" view, human beings are social animals who have simply always existed in tribes, and those tribes take on characteristics that influence individual behavior. In the "individualist" view, the individual is the fundamental unit of social existence and, whatever can be said of groups, such facts can only be articulated by first describing individual behavior.

The discussion is a bit of a dog chasing its own tail. The truth is, if humans weren't social animals, then civilizations wouldn't exist; and if humans weren't intensely individualistic, human rights wouldn't exist.

While some collectivists like to point to certain indigenous populations as examples of what primitive man must have been like, I think the best example of what early humans must have been like are the Australian aboriginals. There, families basically exist as individual units, there are no "tribes," per se. People roam the Outback all day in search of food. Coming across a "neighbor" is a happy change of pace; they share food and stories, spend some time together, and then go their separate ways again. Life is social, but it is also individual.

The theory of trade specialization and comparative advantage articulates how people have since moved from a lonely, nomadic, individualistic life, into thriving communities. When people specialize economically, they can consume outside their individual production possibilities frontiers. This is why marriages work: the two spouses specialize in what they do best, and the family can therefore enjoy more resources. It is also why communities exist. 

In an effort to improve one's quality of life, one specializes in one's greatest strength, trades with his/her community, and enjoys better conditions than if each of us had to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves using our own individually produced resources.

One result of accepting this telling of the story is that the supposed "dichotomy" between individualism and collectivism starts to disintegrate. Mankind is neither an altruistic collective fighting for a communal sense of survival, nor a swarm of autocratic beings who only relent to social interaction when they absolutely must compromise their individual rights. Instead, mankind is a group of people engaging in communication aimed at enriching life in general. All sorts of motives come into play, as many motives as there are individuals.

In short, there is no "collectivism," nor is there any real "individualism." There are only people whose thoughts and motives are as diverse and complex as mankind itself.

Why Do I Bring This Up?
I wanted to introduce this concept because it is becoming progressively more apparent to me that the "libertarian community" (a term that scores full points for irony, by the way) suffers from massive groupthink, in-grouping, and isolation. This is a danger for any group of people, but among a group of professed individualists outlining an individualistic philosophy, it is deadly.

Ayn Rand has been accused of leading a cult that resisted any and all outside points of view. Ironically, the person who promoted this point of view perhaps most vehemently, was Murray Rothbard, who had falling-outs with not only the Objectivists, but also with many other people within the various libertarian movements. Many new and developing libertarian ideas are subjected to an informal "vetting process," in which a theory or concept must be published through approved channels or endorsed by the elder statesmen before it is considered a useful part of the movement.

Any way you look at it, these are the kinds of things that many libertarians consider pernicious aspects of collectivism.

In the future, I hope to spend a bit more time blogging about the apparently competing concepts of individualism and collectivism. Namely, I hope to spend more time discussing the importance of individuality and the need to preserve it in the face of what can sometimes be crushing pressures from the group. But I wanted to first introduce this topic by making short work of the myth that there is some sort of cosmic ideological choice between the kibbutz and hermitude.