Why individualism trumps collectivism

The debate between individualism and collectivism is complex, even without the ad hominem attacks, common straw man arguments and what seems to be deliberate misunderstanding of the principles that often come into play when these ideas are discussed.

Let’s start with definitions for the record.

Individualism is a doctrine that posits that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount. It is also the conception that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals.

Collectivism on the other hand is the practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it. It is also a political or economic theory advocating collective control especially over production and distribution.

Individualism is a far more desirable moral and ethical framework to collectivism. It supports the rights of every individual to do as they please to advance their life. It doesn’t require sacrifice from any one person for someone else’s ideals.

In contemporary media, individualism is often portrayed as heartless, selfish, and lacking in empathy for others. Conversely collectivism is painted as the compassionate worldview and a way to ensure that we all look after each other. Individualism is also sometimes described as people just wanting to be left alone by everyone, to be a man on an island. This strawman is far from the truth of what individualism and a society focused on the rights of the individual promotes.

In an individualist framework, you aren’t prohibited from making collectives and working towards common goals. It would be your right as a free individual to work towards whatever common goal pleased you. You could band together with any number of others and channel your productive energies into helping homeless people, running a football team, starting a club or a business, or fundraising for people in need of dire medical services.

The fundamental difference between individualism and collectivism in practice is coercion. As a free individual you can’t be coerced to contribute your labour or income or surrender your rights to attain some collective goal that someone with a monopoly of force over you demands. As a member of a forced collective, your rights and desires are secondary to the demands of the ‘common good’.

Individualism is respecting the desires, wishes and morals of everyone as supreme, until they inflict damage on another. It is not up to me or you to force someone to do something against their morals or conscience. Collectivism on the other hand elevates the need of the so called ‘common good’ above the needs of any one entity. Individualism respects the autonomy of the individual to live how they choose in accordance with their own goals and desires, while collectivism aims for the supreme needs of the collective to be met through the common application of societal efforts towards certain goals. How those goals are decided or who gets to decide what the common goals of society are is often ignored.

Individualism results in attempts to judge the value of someone by what they have to offer, how good a person they are, how they treat those around them and what they stand for. Consequently they get judged by their own actions and words. Collectivism results in attempts to box people in to groups and judge them based on external characteristics, such as age, sex, and skin colour, characteristics that are, rightly or wrongly, used as a proxy for their individual character. It casts people as members of a homogenous group whose intent, desires and politics can be known just by looking at them, rather than by interacting with them. You are judged by the superficial collective you belong to.

Collectivism results in an us versus them mindset, particularly when political advantage is sought. It leads to divisive policy ideas which attempt to deal an advantage for one group over another, or for one group over all others. Collectivist ideas are the root of racism, judging people as members of groups based on skin colour, rather than their individual character.

We are all individuals. We may join in groups of common interest. That doesn’t refute our individuality. Choose to respect the individual and their autonomy and reject the unattainable and always changing “common good”.

Martin Luther King Jr said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Help make this a reality by judging people on their individual worth, their character, their morals, and their abilities, but not on some external feature you want to use as a proxy for nuanced opinion.

While collectivism preaches looking after the minorities and the downtrodden, in practice it often has the opposite outcome. If collectivists can get in a reasonable position of power with popular support, oppression is common. This is precisely because the needs of the individual are supplanted by the needs of the collective.

What is the smallest minority in the world? Surely it is an individual standing firm against the masses. There is no smaller minority than one person. Protect the rights of minorities everywhere by protecting the rights of the individual against the supreme power of coercion from the state. If an individual is free from being coerced, then the rights of free individuals to speak their mind, voluntarily transact and interact, own property and protect their liberty will be better protected than under any government.

Think for yourself. Be an individual. Your opinions are not determined by skin colour, sex or age. Use logic and reason. Don’t be a hypocrite, and judge individuals based on their own actions and words, not the actions and words of some people who look like them.

Llew Cross

Llew Cross

Llew is passionate about voluntary interaction and cooperation, freedom of speech, freedom of association and free markets, as well as countering enforced collectivism. Llew is the Development Coordinator at Mannkal Economic Education Foundation and a final year chemical engineering and economics student at Curtin University.
Llew Cross

1 Comment on "Why individualism trumps collectivism"

  1. Well said. It has increasingly become the left’s stock in trade to refer to the group identity of those they believe are persecuted and those they consider to be oppressors. It is polarising society and if unchecked will force people who do not agree with group identity to join a ‘tribe’ for fear of being unfairly left out of the race for political power and resources. Articles such as yours are a welcome counterpoint against the dominant social Marxism we are daily subject to.

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