Individual Freedom vs Collective Power: the yin and yang of the American Soul

Too often, inner peace insists upon external validation from another’ assent. Inner peace requiring external control. Ideological victory rather than internal complacency is the measure of success.
Call me simplistic but American Democracy is a tug of war between Individualism and Collectivism. The law of the jungle vs herd mentality. Individualism is the belief that society and government exist solely to preserve one’s ability to do anything they want. Collectivism is the notion that society and government exist to restrain individual behaviors in keeping with the ideology of the collective - a construct that usually props up the views of the collectivists or (probably more often) the puppet masters who pull their strings. From this perspective religion, political movements (with the possible exception of Objectivism...), value structures, blah, blah, blah, are all forms of collectivism.

The brilliance of the founders of this country was recognizing that both extremes are pretty bad news. Neither is a viable or desirable solution. Democracy requires careful measures of both. Their biggest blunder were that they were politicians and were afraid to spell this out unambiguously. For all their talk about inalienable rights they didn’t trust the individual to be rational. Hence the creation of a Republic, not a Democracy, the wisdom of which becomes more apparent every day. Too bad it slippery-sloped its way toward Democracy over the years.

Individualists tend to ignore the real benefits of collectivism and Collectivists often trod on the liberties of individuals. Democracy requires a constant balancing act between the two extremes. It clings to a precarious toe-hold on a steep hill with the abyss of individualism on one side and that of collectivism on the other. It’s an inherently unstable process which requires tremendous expenditures of energy to maintain.

The old saw about your rights ending at the end of my nose pretty much sums up the challenge. What stirs the pot is one’s definition as to the location the end of your nose - is it a physical or metaphorical concept? Collectivists tend to think of it metaphorically - as they tend to have very big noses that they stick into other people’s business with righteous abandon. Of course since the Collectivist is certain of their superior position, this interference is considered to really be for the other person’s good. Individualists tend to rail that they can’t understand how you could be so stupid as to stand so close to their flailing arms so as to get you nose in a jam in the first place.

With the exception of sociopaths individualists usually aren’t a huge problem since narcissism keeps them largely occupied and in any case makes it hard for them to organize in any meaningful fashion (ever watched the Democratic national Convention...). They are the social equivalent of a leaky faucet - representing more of an annoyance and minimal cost burden.

Collectivists however are a constant threat to social harmony but ironically are required for it to exist in the first place. Sad as it is, some rulebook is required for a society with a population larger than one. Absent a rulebook one is left with chaos and the prospect of invading hordes, screaming Canadians rushing the border, or some other calamity. There in lies the rub of course. What rulebook to apply. Democracy insists that we make value judgments -create rules - no matter how much that bothers individualists. And these value judgments are necessarily a moving target - no matter how much that appalls collectivists. Often Collectivists view any changing in the rules as a form of victimization. But that’s not oppression it’s just that the market place of ideas has opened up. And these new competing ideas often come up because of the nagging rant of some Individualist on the fringes.

My vote for the rule book always ends up with the US Constitution for at least two really good reasons:
  1. It's short and to the point
  2. Everybody knows that somebody made it all up
It’s a great system as long as people pay attention.


Michael Lockridge said...

I, too, am fond of the Constitution. Perhaps we should return to it.

Jared said...

Unfortunately, we have those that wish to ignore the amendments to said Constitution, aside from 2 and 3, of course. They are all too happy to ignore the rest.

I'm not sure where I would fall in your spectrum, though. I tend to be quite the individualist (outside of the present collective) with leanings towards collectivism. Is it still a collectivist mentality when the collectivists all want to be individualists?

Harvey said...


Your usual great post!!
The unavoidable dichotomy between individual rights (privileges?) and group needs and welfare can be recognized in the process of human growth and development, culminating (we always can hope)in maturity/civilization. Personal maturity represents the individual's recognition that his/her personal welfare depends upon acceptance by the family/tribe/country/world society in which he/she lives and with whom he must interact successfully to survive. One's ability to see the need to sometimes subjugate personal desires to the long-term advantages of reciprocal group interaction seems to me to be central to all of this. I like to think that most of us "get it", at least to a sufficient degree to survive/thrive in our societies, but, of course, it is usually those of us at either extreme (indivdualism vs collectivism) who either "don't get it" and/or choose to exploit this situation that make all the trouble that ensues.

pboyfloyd said...

"Hence the creation of a Republic, not a Democracy, the wisdom of which becomes more apparent every day. Too bad it slippery-sloped its way toward Democracy over the years."

Maybe if you defined 'Republic' and 'Democracy' or at least pointed out the differences as you see them, I could understand what you're getting at.

I've looked at the dictionary definitions and 'Republic' is vague and may BE a 'Democracy', which seems to not give any wiggle room there.

For example, when people say, "This is a Republic, not a Democracy!", are you saying that there are no democratic elections? Are you saying that these democratically elected representatives don't 'represent' us?


Saint Brian the Godless said...

Not sure I agree with the categories.

Who's more of an individualist than a tea-bagger, in the sense that they want to be left the hell alone with their guns and bibles? (Except of course when they don't, which is another story...)

Who's more of a collectivist than a tree-hugging liberal hippy, caring about all the world's peoples, and animals and plants for that matter?

The categories seem mixed in most individuals, not black and white, at least to me.

Much like Yin and Yang.

One thing you said that I do agree with, is that you need a balance of both. In governmental policy, and in individuals.

Extremes tend to be, well, extreme. As in, not optimal for the solution of a given problem.

I know I'm misunderstanding you here, but still...

cody said...

It seems to me that the reduction to one dimension discards important aspects.

For instance, as an extremely liberal hippy I tend to be an individualist with respect to personal rights (drugs, sex, rock & roll), but a collectivist with respect to regulation & social systems (e.g. education, health & medicine, taxes).

My complement on the far right would think the government should minimize taxes, regulation and social support, but also should forbid homosexuals from marrying or hippies from smoking pot.

And of course there are people extreme in both directions simultaneously, like libertarians. Though it's hard to think of a socialist who thinks the government should dictate social behavior in addition to economic interactions...