Collectivism versus Individualism

Individualism and collectivism are at root political concepts. In a political context they are logical opposites. Individualism views people as sovereign entities possessing inalienable rights (a subject I come back to later). In contrast, collectivism means the subordination of the individual to the group (Peikoff, 1982). The American Heritage Dictionary (1996) (3rd edition) defines collectivism as “The principle or system of ownership and control of the means of production and distribution by the people collectively.” (The full meaning of collectivism, however, is wider than economics; see Peikoff, 1982, pp. 24ff). Collectivism as a political doctrine is based on three more fundamental branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

Metaphysics

With respect to the basic nature of the individual and reality, individualism asserts, based on direct perceptual evidence, that every individual is real and separate from every other individual. This reflects the philosophy of Aristotle, who upheld the reality of the world we perceive. Individualism holds that individuals are autonomous entities possessing the capacity to reason and free will—which is the choice of whether or not to use one’s rational faculty (Binswanger, 1991; Rand, 1961).

Collectivism holds an opposite view on these issues. The metaphysical base of collectivism was provided by Plato, who claimed that peoples’ basic character was not chosen but determined by birth. He asserted that the senses deceive us, and that the individual objects we perceive are not fully real but only reflections of true reality, in this case the “one Form of a human being.” Individuals, according to

Plato, are all part of one unit or superorganism, the state. This view later came to be called the “organic theory of the state.” Advocates of this organic view were Fichte and Hegel, who paved the way, in this regard, for totalitarian movements such as Nazism and Communism (Peikoff, 1982).

All this does not invalidate the use of concepts such as group or society so long as one holds in mind that these are abstractions, not actual entities. Thus a group is a collection of individuals, usually working toward a common purpose or sharing common values. One can “see” a group but what one sees is individuals together.

 
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