Musing on Collectivism vs. Individualism

Hug it out! We are all unique AND we help each other!

For some reason, Facebook is a hotbed of political discussion. Actually, I know the reason: Facebook is where we express our opinions and promote the ideas we want to promote. It’s the ultimate in Confirmation Bias. We like the statements people make that support our opinions and views and argue with those who we disagree with.

I had one of those arguments on my own wall in the last couple of days. It started with a quote from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) (I was underscoring that the ‘father of Capitalism’ foresaw that corporations should not have influence in law):

“The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution…It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” Book I, Chapter XI, Part III

…and spiraled into a debate with a person I hardly know about the benefits/evils of Individualism vs. Collectivism. I should say straight up that I’m opposed to the extreme of both ends of this duality. There needs to be a balance between the two – an uneasy, messy, complicated balance. I feel that the US is lacking balance (Individualism lite and Individualism extreme are the ‘ends’ of the spectrum), but that’s another rant. Either way, I posted a rather lengthy reply to the commenter and I thought to myself, “This is a blog post, not a Facebook comment,” so I have posted it here.

Here is the latter part of the conversation. Let me know if you have opinions of your own:

ME: “FWIW, I believe in a good balance between individual and community – no extremes on either side. Extremes, in my opinion, never lead to good solutions. Of course the balance between the two is not easy, but I live in a country that does a pretty good job of it.”

FB Commenter: “Ah, the good balance…Problem is, you can not satisfy the hunger of the collectivist for power. That’s why the founding fathers drafted the constitution in the form of negative liberties (“Congress shall not”) and gave Gov only certain enumerated powers so that we’ll enjoy maximum freedom. They never envision that communists will be able to win elections and impose their tyrannical ways here in the U.S. , but hey, it is a never ending battle. Freedom will have its day…:)”

ME: “you can not satisfy the hunger of the collectivist for power.” Is this a singular collectivist? Or a group of people? I’m pretty sure you have been influenced somewhere by someone who doesn’t truly understand what Collectivism is.

The whole basis of Democracy is political Collectivism – the idea that no one person is given power above others and each of us has one vote – and that we are interdependent beings (need one another to survive). Unless, of course, you are talking about Centralism (sometimes referred to as vertical collectivism), which is a specific scenario in which a chosen group of people decide what is best for everyone. This occurs in a Monarchy, which I don’t believe anyone in the US represents or champions. It’s also what Totalitarian regimes adopted.

Canada (my country) is a political Collectivism. It’s a Social Democracy with regulatory bodies, free public health care and education, grants and programs to help entrepreneurs get off the ground and one of my favorite former leaders once said, “The State has no business in the bedrooms of its people.” We’re not perfect and there are lots of inefficiencies in the system, but we strike a nice balance between the individual and collective. (and contrary to popular belief, our taxes aren’t that much higher – higher, yes, but by a few percentage points in most cases and our lower income threshold is much higher, so our working class pays lower taxes than US working class…it’s complicated, but the wealthy have fewer tax breaks in Canada, so they definitely pay the lion’s share)

I wasn’t raised with the idea that collectivism is inherently evil, but I was given lots of history lessons and see how all sorts of governments in all sorts of forms have become power hungry. The issue is the human predisposition for power. Anytime any one person or group gains too much power, they abuse it. Power allows a person or a group to maximize their individual freedoms (sort of a ‘na na na boo boo, I can do whatever I want to and you can’t stop me’ thing we are born with).

Theoretically, pure individualism would work in a completely flat society – one in which hierarchies and status is eradicated. Because one’s power could never eclipse that of his or her neighbor. Unfortunately, the same power-hunger exists in individuals without power as it does for those who have it, so there will be an endless struggle to maximize individual power (this is referred to as vertical individualism btw). In our world, money and privilege are great unequalizers. And money and privilege create more money and privilege.

This is why I believe in uneasy, messy, complicated balance. It may seem to a ‘free will’ advocate that it limits personal freedoms, but it also protects us from someone’s personal freedoms impeding on our own (more of a Compatibilism idea where Free Will and determinism exist in peace to keep the peace).

At the end of the day, I’d rather it be an obvious law or regulation than have to spend each day in and day out fighting for my own space in the world (which I feel we do enough of with the biases and inequality that already exists in society). At least in a democracy, I can vote. Maybe I don’t get my way, but at least I have the same say as the next guy.

(I’ve made a few edits to explain the argument better outside of the FB context – nothing that changes my position, just underscores it)

When I lived in SF, I encountered MANY Randians (you know, Ayn Rand worshippers) who sounded very much like my FB commenter. I think Rand represents an extreme of an idea and profited through her controversial outlook (but didn’t always live by it, btw. She’s a truly fascinating character…). But following the Atlas Shrugged or Fountainhead lessons like gospel would be akin to me following Star Wars as gospel – they are fictional stories with underlying lessons and messages, but not real life.

Go Go Gadget Wheels!

Real life is filled with real people who generally try really really hard to be good people, but more than often lose our way, become power hungry, selfish, needy, insecure, afraid and fall prey to all sorts of psychological imperfections that we can’t control (and often don’t even recognize in ourselves).

In a world filled with only those who act like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama (each of whom fought their own demons btw), we’d be fine no matter what political or social or whatever system we chose. We could be anarchists and live harmoniously. But we aren’t.

We smoosh ourselves into cities, living on top of one another, feeling stressed and alienated and anxious day in and day out. When we get a whiff of escape from this, we don’t want to go back to the struggle of everyday existence, so we do what we can to hold onto the power.  Power acts like the Gadget-Mobile, allowing us to transcend every day barriers (but we all know it was Penny and Brain that saved Inspector Gadget’s butt constantly). Once you sit in first class, going back to economy is tough. I know this. I want to throw temper tantrums daily to get my way, but I don’t because I know that I don’t deserve getting my way any more than anyone else.

We are seriously free, lucky, incredibly privileged mofos at the end of the day. To cry about our freedoms being taken away because we’ve been asked to pay for our employee’s healthcare plans is an insult to those who can’t walk down the street without fearing for their lives because of a corrupt government and an even more corrupt revolution (my sister-in-law was raised in Sierra Leone…ask her how free you are).

The problems we have are deep, but we can only blame government and leeches on the system and anyone else who is our scapegoat for their small part. The biggest problem is our perception of things. Our lack of freedom and our biggest enemies lie within our own selves. We are never happy. We are insatiable. We believe that we are getting ripped off. We think we are the center of the bloody universe. We invent most of our own problems. And we project all of our insecurities onto others.

Hell, maybe the Buddhists have the answer. There is no self and no other. Man, I need to learn how to meditate…

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Categories: community, gov2.0, social capital

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.

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