The divide between individualist and collectivist ideologies is so deep, and often treacherous, that some might consider bridge building to be a fool’s errand. It’s a divide that cuts into some of the most important questions we have about how we should act, and how society should be structured. In our economic and moral considerations, it asks, should we place individual considerations ahead of social ones, or vice-versa?
I believe that properly conceived, this ideological divide need not be so large after all. The premise it depends on, which I believe to be flawed, is this: what benefits the individual, more often than not, is at odds with what might benefit society. If this is not true, then no fundamental quarrel exists between the goals of these ostensibly embattled ideological frameworks.
It may be presumptuous to imagine I will provide some vital synthesis in this article. Nevertheless, I don’t mind shooting big… I might just end up saying something worth saying.1
Ask almost any serious individualist free market advocate what the core tenet of their philosophy is. Chances are, most of them are going say ‘Voluntarism’.2 Many of them cut right to the chase, and instead of calling themselves ‘Capitalists’ or ‘Free Market Advocates’, they simply go for ‘Voluntarist’.
Voluntarism is the position that no person has a right to force any other to do anything against their will, and that all interactions involving multiple people must involve the uncoerced consent of all involved. This is closely tied to ‘the non-aggression principal’, a moral axiom which states that no person may ever initiate the use of force against another person. Self-defense is permissible, as the force was initiated, in that case, by the other.
Hard to argue with, right? Don’t attack, don’t steal, don’t rape, don’t kill. This covers much of the basic rule-set we need for a functioning community to operate, but when applied consistently, it actually calls into question some of the most fundamental institutions on which we base our society.
Like taxes — well, actually, the whole government, but lets talk specifically about taxes. If we are not allowed to take things from people that they don’t want taken (stealing), how can we justify a compulsory system of taxation? Taxes are not voluntary, uncoerced payments for services rendered. We cannot opt out, for example, of having our tax dollars go to pay for the military, or for schools we believe are being run badly. If we do not want to pay them, the government will take our money anyway, or, eventually, they will throw us in jail.3
Voluntarists point out that whether tax money is used for good or for ill is irrelevant, as it was acquired through force, and is therefore illegitimate. We don’t say that stealing a sofa is okay because afterwards the owner decided they were better off getting a new one.
Some see this position as akin to a belligerent child, refusing to share his toys, stomping his foot and screaming ‘It’s mine!’. And maybe it is, but that has no bearing on whether or not the child has a point. Both the voluntarist and the child could be forced to share; the former at the point of a gun; the latter with the threat of a parent’s wrath; but what can this force possibly foster besides resentment, a sense of injustice, and less intrinsic desire to share?
If you spent much time at all at the leftist-dominated ‘Occupy’ protests, you likely heard the word ‘solidarity’ thrown around quite a bit. The most concise way I can think to define solidarity is as ‘mutual support within a group’. That group is often thought of as humanity as a whole, though sometimes as only a particular nation, class, or community.
Solidarity is the position that we need to stick together and take care of one another. That individuals have a responsibility to help the members of their community in times of need; to be generous in times of abundance. This ensures that those same individuals will, in turn, have something to rely on in times of lack, in the case of some unfortunate situation.
For most of our evolutionary history, solidarity occurred within small bands or tribes of hunter-gatherers. Losing the support of your tribe meant near-certain death, and so the need for solidarity is, in a very real sense, hard-wired into us. We experience intense anxiety and often display aggressive, or even violent, behavior when we feel socially ostracized, or that nobody has our back. Today, that same death anxiety has become tied with a lack of financial security. Access to money fills the same survival ensurance role that social cohesion once played.
Biologically, and logically, we cannot feel (or be) safe in a world that constantly stimulates this death anxiety through widespread financial and social insecurity. The unfortunate or unable, because no one has their back, live with chronic survival anxiety. The fortunate and the able live in fear of losing what they have, either to thieves, beggars, governmental policy, or to shifts in the tides of the market.
Modern collectivism, in a very real sense, is grasping at a way to recreate or reinterpret that tribal bond for our present-day world, and wishes to reinstate the security it implies.
Solidarity is also closely tied with empathy. We feel each other’s pain and suffering very similarly to how we feel our own. Those who do not care for (or about) one another are generally thought of as sick, mentally disturbed, or psychopathic.
Collectivists seek to set community standards and practices that ensure the integrity of the community members. Making sure that the hungry are fed, and that all have access to livable accommodations and adequate health care, I think, we can all agree are noble goals.
Individualists will not agree, however, that solidarity can in any way be required. It might seem ‘nice’, but a ‘requirement’ will require enforcement, and you can’t force people to share, or to do anything, without violating the non-aggression principal.
Individualists tend to think that people should responsible for solving their own problems. They often contrast themselves, very broadly, with ‘statists’ — people who wish to have ‘the state’ (ie: the government; ie: men with guns who force people to do stuff) solve their problems for them.
Much modern socialist and collectivist practice has involved the use of state violence as a cheap surrogate for the tribal bond.
Some of the most hideous, murderous, totalitarian states in living memory have branded themselves as pinnacles of collectivism (such as, The Communist Party of The USSR, The National Socialists (Nazi’s) in Germany), as acting for ‘the social good’. If we are to believe that these groups ever had the noble intention of helping their countrymen, their method of authoritarian top-down enforcement was ineffective, to put it mildly. To put it not so mildly, it was evil, murderous, and brutal.
Even modern, progressive socialist governments run into the sketchy morality of compulsory taxation and top down enforcement. The tyranny here is softer and harder to discern, but the state apparatus is a poor replacement for tribal affinity, as it places our survival (both as recipients and contributors into the system) at the precarious whims of a government bureaucracy. Always and forever backed by the unspoken threat of a gun and a cage.
“People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! […] We’re not on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves.”
– Joseph Campbell
This kind of rhetoric may not sit well with some. We should really just be aiming to ‘save ourselves’? It may sound a little bit too much like the selfishness praising mantras of Ayn Rand and the Objectivists. But keep in mind that to ‘save yourself’ might not mean that you should put your immediate self-interest ahead of all other concerns.
Sometimes in order to save yourself, you may have to do the opposite.
Edward Snowden, for example, sacrificed an apparently comfortable life in order to save himself from the guilt of knowingly participating in one of the greatest, most criminal, Orwellian police state operations in history.
“[…] We’re not on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves. But in doing that, you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”
– Joseph Campbell
Voluntarists don’t often invoke solidarity, but they do want to make the world a better place for everyone. Their passion to facilitate a society which ensures autonomy, and inspires a sense of potency and self-sufficiency makes this quite obvious. Their ultimate goal is freedom for all.
Freedom. Now that’s a highly charged (and often misused) word — but the inner fire it stokes within us is a recognizable spark of something essential that we should not lose sight of. People don’t do well in cages, either literal or regulatory.
Compulsory solidarity is not solidarity at all, but a form of tyranny. True solidarity requires voluntary generosity, both of matter and of spirit.
These are pretty hard to achieve when one doesn’t even have enough for themselves, but how can we ensure that people have enough, without requiring or enforcing it? How else can we ensure the provision of food, shelter, education, and health care for all, without governments? Without taxes? Without forcing people to share?
First, we must realize that those methods do not work, and even if they did, that wouldn’t make them okay.
Next, we have to ask ourselves: what does work?
In absolute terms, it is impossible to be a rugged, self-sustaining individualist in a universe where we depend on each other for our needs — nobody is an island unto themselves. We depend on each other to keep our planet habitable, for social interaction, and to cooperate on projects which are too big for just one person. Pollutants migrate. Solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments we can lob at someone; humans don’t often do well without social contact. Any kind of industrial or post-industrial production requires large-scale cooperation between people of diverse talents.
It is clear that we must cooperate and depend on each other to live, and yet the notion that each person must ‘look out for themselves first’ is a logical and biological reality. Is this a conflict? Can working for your own self-betterment, personal enjoyment, and profit actually make the world a better place for everyone?
I think that it can.
But with a (major) caveat.
Clearly the way many businessmen, industrialists, and corporate owners operate today do not make the world a better place for everyone, despite the fact that they are very self-interested and making huge profits.
Take the BP executives who made money from the company in the time leading up to the oil spill. The environmental destruction they caused was incalculable, but the cost to their company wasn’t. Today’s world is a graveyard of the corpses caused by blind profit-seeking run amok.4
Wars fought for oil profits. Food poisoned for agricultural profits. Unsafe medications sold for pharmaceutical profits. The track record of destructive self-interest is not much better than tyrannical collectivism, and just like it, usually uses state violence as a method of enforcement.
Destructive self-interest is narrowly focused, and is blind to the interconnected nature of life on this planet, both socially and ecologically. It is destructive not only on a large-scale, but usually to the individual who ‘benefited’ as well.
Those BP executives, and their descendents, will still have to live on the planet that they served to pollute. There are innumerable ways that the blowback and feedback looping effects from this environmental disaster will directly affect them. This is a stark example of an inability to take long-term, or broad range, personal self-interest into account. The inability to delay gratification and think synergistically is a hallmark of destructive self-interest.
So when I say that maybe the idea of working for your own profit and self-interest can make the world a better place for everyone — and to back up my initial assertion that what is best for the individual is not most often at odds with what is best for society — I have to define what I mean by self-interest. I’d like to introduce you to a refinement on the entire concept, called:
Enlightened may seem like a grandiose word to use, but it is really the most apt, meaning here ‘having or showing a rational, modern, and well-informed outlook.’ What Edward Snowden did was an example of enlightened self-interest.
In most cases, people will not voluntarily participate in something that is not in their own best interest — at least not for any extended length of time — so it’s important to have a full grasp on what actually is in our own best, most enlightened, self-interest.
Self-Interested Solidarity and ‘The Social Good’
Individualists usually eschew any notion of such a thing as ‘the social good’. They very wisely point out that a group or a collective is not a distinct entity that has ‘well-being’– except in terms of that of its constituents.5 Collective well-being can only be conceived of, if it can be conceived of or determined at all, in reference to individuals.
Individual well-being, of course, requires means to access food, shelter, water, education, a clean environment, etc — the things collectivists maintain should be basic rights for all — but it also requires that we exist in an environment that allows for, encourages, and nurtures autonomy, self-mastery, personal growth and empowerment, and some sense of self-sufficiency.
The best way for a society to go about ‘taking care’ of its members is to empower them to take care of themselves, whenever possible. But — and here’s the almost paradoxical catch-22 — in order to take care of ourselves, we need to look out for each other. This is the crucial element that ‘enlightens’ self-interest.
However, to flip the script one more time, it’s important to note that often, the best thing we can do for others is to take care of ourselves first. Nobody else knows what we need better than we do. By taking responsibility for our own survival, we take that burden away from others who might opt to shoulder it. Once we have more than enough strength and resources to take care of ourselves, we can truly be of help to others, and in doing so, will be all the better for it.
“When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”
– Eleanor Brown
If we live in a world filled with inept, starving, crippled individuals, they are going to steal from us and attack us. Our safety and sanity, in a very simple, causal way, is tied to that of every other individual who makes up our community. This is why fostering individual productivity and self-mastery is so important, so that there is enough excess wealth to allow for the compassion, and kinship, to help take care of those who can’t.
Which also needs to happen, not as a top down requirement, but as a natural outgrowth of our humanity and compassion, and a recognition of the benefit of living in a place where people help each other out.
Solidarity is, in this sense, synonymous with self-interest. Solidarity could never mean that individual interests are sacrificed to those of the group. The group is made of individuals. The group’s interests consist of those of its individual constituents.
To lose sight of the fact that each of us has integrity only to the extent of that of the other individuals around us is the blindness of some individualists.
The blindness of some collectivists is to minimize the importance of the individual. To see each as only a pawn which may be sacrificed for the purpose of serving some higher goal, to be arrived at by committee or by consensus. If any individuals are but pawns to be sacrificed, the integrity of the entire group is compromised. Life isn’t a game of chess. Individuals are not expendable.
“Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.”
– Immanuel Kant
So should we be on a mission to save ourselves? I think we should. Dreams of changing ‘the social order’ without at least starting with yourself are bound to fail.
There is no such thing as a social order or operating system that is distinct from the interactions of the individuals inside that system. Changing ourselves and changing our relationships may not seem like much, but individual change has the power for exponential expansion, if approached properly — especially in today’s age of internet enabled communication amplification.
What creates a strong community, if not for autonomous, caring, empathetic, and free individuals? What supports the existence of these individuals if not a strong and caring community?
This is the very real, often overlooked convergence between individualism and collectivism. It should lead to the somewhat counter-intuitive coupling of realizations that often, the best thing one can do for themselves is to make their own immediate needs secondary,6 but that just as often, the best thing one can do for society is to act in their own best interest, to take care of themself first.
This is not to say that there are no genuine conflicts between collectivists and individualists. I don’t intend to whitewash over these differences, but merely to point out the spheres in which I think some major overlap should be considered and acknowledged.
The devil, as always, is in the details. Even if this essay successfully argues that the goals of individualism and collectivism are mutual and interdependent, the strategies employed by these two groups are often wildly different.
It is beyond the scope of this article, but I may, in the future, attempt to delve into some of these more specific topics7 and will attempt to apply this synthesis to them, based on the premise that voluntarism and solidarity are two mutually necessary and inter-supportive principles.
By adhering to both of these principles simultaneously, I think we can realize the closest approximation of the ever elusive ‘free’, ‘sane’, or ‘happy’ society.
- While fully recognizing, given my relative dearth of in-depth knowledge of the history of political, specifically libertarian and socialist philosophy, that whatever I say has probably been said before, better, by smarter people. This is my amateur analysis of these ideologies as I see them play out today in the modern (mostly online) debate. (back)
- Or, ‘Freedom’! (back)
- Just ask Wesley Snipes! (back)
- Free market purists point out that this is because government protections shield corporate owners from having to bear the true costs of what they do, and this is certainly true enough. In a stateless free market, they argue, the costs of BP putting the proper safety precautions in place would have been far less than the cost of the oil spill – so under that framework, in order to maximize profit, there would be no oil spill.
A profit system calibrated to take into account, as monetary cost, all of what are now considered ‘externalities’, then profit, by definition, would only be a force that made the world a better place for everyone. The recognition that there are factors that our current profit structure doesn’t take into account is an important one. (back)
- Never mind, for the moment, that much the same could be argued for a human and his or her parts. (back)
- re: Edward Snowden, BP Oil Execs (back)
- Suggestions would be helpful! Currently, I’m thinking of tackling the issue of ‘social safety nets’/’entitlements’ and maybe ‘property rights’/’ownership of the means of production’ (back)