Tag Archives: individualism

The Collectivist Mentality

[This article appeared in Huffington Post, Nov. 9, 2015:  http://huff.to/1RINNZY]

China’s mandatory limit on the number of children a couple may have, which the communist government recently announced is being changed from one to two, attracts little support in the West. Apart from the most ardent environmentalists, people generally recognize the evil of such a policy.

But do they understand what, at root, makes it so abhorrent? Or do they tolerate, even embrace, variants of the same idea in other areas? Consider, for example, the following three positions and ask yourself whether there is a common belief underlying all of them:

  • The communist’s prohibition against having more than one (or two) children.
  • The conservative’s demand that assisted suicide be banned.
  • The liberal’s campaign against income inequality.

These seemingly diverse views are actually products of the same mindset: a collectivist mentality.

Under the collectivist philosophy, the individual has no independent existence or value. He is merely one of many indistinguishable, disposable cells within the “social organism.” It is the group that has primacy. Consequently, all important decisions must be made, not by the individual, but by society — i.e., by the state.

When it comes to child-bearing, on this view, everything you give your child — every morsel of food, every drop of water, every inch of space — represents a resource taken away from society. All acts of consumption become acts of expropriation. You therefore need public approval before having a child. You must be given permission to use up society’s scarce resources. And what about your rights? You have none, according to the doctrine of collectivism. The demands of the group, not the rights of the individual, set the standard for social policy.

Similarly, those who oppose assisted suicide believe that your life is not really your own. You are a fragment of society, they say, not an independent human being. The decision to terminate your life, no matter what agonies you may be suffering, cannot be made by you or by those who choose to assist you. Rather, it must be made by the collective. As one legal brief, written for a Supreme Court case, put it: “[Suicide] is an intensely social act . . . amenable to social control, since it has a dramatic impact on others.” It is an act “requiring the assent of society as a whole.” (And even those who oppose suicide on strictly religious grounds share the collectivist’s basic premise: the presence of some “higher power” to which the individual must subordinate himself.)

This point is articulated more starkly in an 1802 handbook of English law (cited approvingly in the aforementioned brief): “The law regards [suicide] as an heinous offence . . . for as the public have a right to every man’s assistance, he who voluntarily kills himself is with respect to the public as criminal as one who kills another.”

In other words, suicide and murder are equally objectionable since both diminish the human resources available to society. We are all supposed to accept the role of rightless serfs, serving as fodder for some “greater good.”

The same philosophy underlies the crusade for income equality. “Why should the top 1 percent own close to 50 percent of the wealth in America?” the crusaders ask. Or, looking at the issue more globally, “Why should the U.S., with under 5 percent of the world’s population, have more than 20 percent of the world’s GDP?” If your life is not yours, neither is your money. Instead it supposedly belongs to the collective, which then determines how much you should be allowed to have.

But don’t the rich have more because they have produced more? Doesn’t a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett or a Sam Walton create his wealth through his own efforts? No, says the collectivist emphatically — no one does. This view holds not just that your money may be seized at will by society, but that you never earned it in the first place. It’s the view that your income is a collective product.

“It takes a village to raise a billionaire,” according to the organization Responsible Wealth. “You didn’t build that,” according to President Obama — society did. To the collectivist, wealth is never an individual achievement. Rather, it materializes, causelessly and anonymously, from the social organism. And since we’re all just interchangeable cells of that organism, why should any single cell receive a bigger paycheck than any other? Why shouldn’t we all be “equal”?

Exercising our rights over our lives — from keeping our own money, to bearing children, to choosing suicide — depends on a moral code of individualism. Every attack on our freedom stems from the notion that the individual must be sacrificed to the collective. These attacks will not end until the individual is upheld as an end in himself, rather than merely a means to the ends of others.♦♦

Memorial Day–But Don’t Call It a Sacrifice

[This was published at Huffington Post on May 22, 2015] 

As an Objectivist, I oppose the idea that self-sacrifice is the right way for people to deal with one another. I don't believe you have a moral duty to subordinate yourself to others. Another person's need should not create a moral claim against you merely because you are able to satisfy that need. Human relations should not consist of one person's gain coming at the price of another's loss. People should interact not through sacrifice but through honest trade, by offering each other value for value, to mutual benefit.

It may surprise some to learn that I nonetheless applaud and admire the efforts of those in our armed forces. Not because they are performing acts of sacrifice, but the opposite: because they are acting to properly further their self-interest.

The term "sacrifice" needs to be correctly understood. To sacrifice means to endure a loss. It means to give up that which is worth more to you for the sake of that which is worth less. It means putting someone else's needs above your own. It means doing without a new suit or a new car, so that your neighbor can get a subsidized mortgage, or his mother can get free health care or the inhabitants of Bangladesh can receive foreign aid. To sacrifice is to suffer so that others might benefit.

But this is not what characterizes — or should characterize — our military activities. In a free country, soldiers who fight against an actual threat to America are not sacrificing what is most important to them — they are upholding it. They are acting to preserve their freedom. They are risking their lives because they are unwilling to allow an enemy to undermine their way of life. They are acting selfishly — in the proper, rational sense of the term. That is, they are concerned with their own well-being, which includes being committed to the political system — America's system — under which human life flourishes. They are pursuing their own long-range interests. They value liberty and do not want to surrender it. They choose to fight because of their allegiance to their own ideals.

When America confronted the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II, those who voluntarily enlisted — and military service should only be voluntary — were not sacrificing. They went to battle in the name of their personal values. They refused to allow even the possibility of their having to live under some form of tyranny.

By contrast, when our soldiers are used on so-called humanitarian missions, they are sacrificing. When they are sent to intervene in some distant tribal conflict, a conflict that has no bearing on their own freedom, they are being treated unjustly by our political leaders. That is, they are being made to act selflessly.

In today's world, it is plainly in our soldiers' interest to combat the threat posed by Islamic jihadists (though not by means of the ineffectual, unwinnable type of war we are now conducting). This is a battle not to protect Iraq or Syria or Yemen — but to protect America. It is a mission not of altruism but of self-interest, which is its only moral justification.

Our country was founded on the tenet of individualism — the tenet that the citizen is not an object to be sacrificed and disposed of by the state, but is rather a sovereign being with the inalienable right to his life, his liberty and the pursuit of his own happiness. So let us praise the legitimate efforts of our troops, and let us memorialize those who have died in the effort to preserve America's founding principle. And the best memorial we can offer them is to stop calling their actions a sacrifice — and to insist that whenever our soldiers are asked to fight, it is for the selfish purpose of defending their freedom.♦♦