By Scott Weiser
America is suffering through a paroxysm of social and political discord unlike anything seen since the Vietnam War protests. Ideological polarization has led to increasing levels of violence in the streets and to the division of our society into two distinct and seemingly intractable hostile camps. This pattern is often seen as a prelude to social collapse. We need look no further than Venezuela to see the terrible results of unhealed social division.
To understand what is happening and have any hope of correcting it, we need to examine the root causes of our present social divide.
There are two predominant forms of social organization seen in the world today: Individualism and Collectivism. Both derive primarily from a third: monarchy. The historic condition of humanity for many thousands of years has been the unquestioned rule of a monarch over his people.
Individualism and Collectivism are the natural opponents of monarchy. Both express the general objective of societal self-determination over rule by an individual. The difference between the two however is in who takes the place of the monarch when it comes to the governing of society and to whom the individual owes fealty.
Collectivism replaces the monarch with, as Karl Marx puts it, the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which is to say majoritarian totalitarianism. Individualism replaces the monarch with the individual as sovereign.
But as the Declaration of Independence says, governments are instituted among men to secure the fruits of liberty. Government is a necessity in human culture. Anarchy isn’t a useful model of social organization. The question becomes one of social participation and how it is viewed and regulated.
If you place the philosophical goals of Collectivists such as Socialists, Liberals and Progressives side by side on a list with those of Individualists such as Libertarians, Republicans and Conservatives they are practically identical, at least insofar as the goals of securing the life, liberty and happiness of the average citizen is concerned. In this we are not so far apart. But there are some important fundamental differences.
We as Americans do not substantially differ in our desire for peace, prosperity, justice, health, welfare, liberty, community and safety for all. But today we differ radically in how we believe those goals can best be achieved.
The difference can be simply stated as the polar opposite individual internal beliefs of “I owe” versus “I am owed.”
Collectivists have an “I am owed” internal belief that society owes them what they need. They believe that compulsion is the only way to obtain what they need and to achieve fairness and equality in society. Collectivists take the jaundiced view of human nature that it cannot be trusted to act altruistically or charitably. Therefore everyone must be forced by the collective to fulfill the “I am owed” needs of others. This is exemplified by Karl Marx’s creed “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
Individualists on the other hand have an “I owe” internal belief and a desire for fairness and equality created and served by natural human instincts that manifest as voluntary social cooperation and contribution to the common good. This is exemplified by President John F. Kennedy’s quote “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Collectivists also believe that social equality and prosperity are a zero-sum game; that the success of one person requires the failure of another. If one person has more wealth or higher social standing than another it must have been stolen. This is seen in the present “social justice” demands for redistribution of wealth to achieve equality of outcomes.
Individualists believe in the unlimited nature of both wealth and social standing and that equal opportunity means the opportunity for anyone to strive for social and economic advancement and success without social or legal barriers being deliberately erected to frustrate the attempt.
True equality is not created by the equally penurious outcomes that are the inevitable consequence of Collectivist conceits. True equality comes through individual effort, voluntary cooperation and mutual support spurred by the natural human attributes of charity, altruism, compassion and rational self-interest.