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Collectivism vs Individualism

Entry 2052, on 2020-07-14 at 10:58:06 (Rating 2, Politics)

One of the defining divisions in modern society might be the philosophical difference between the dogmas represented by collectivism and individualism. It seems that some cultures value individual rights and freedoms highly, and try to reduce or eliminate control by the state, while others see the state as an essential element in making life better for the majority.

So who is right? Well, as you might guess based on my previous blog posts, I would say both. I strongly believe in maximum freedom of both action and speech which are free from the restraints of excessive state control, but I also realise there are many issues which cannot be treated that way and where a central authority is necessary.

So neither the libertarians nor the socialists are right, but there is a need for both of those political philosophies in modern society. So when people say they don't want socialism in their country they are wrong. They actually do want some socialism, because without central institutions controlling excessive corporate power, managing infrastructure and services which aren't commercially viable, and supporting groups which are disadvantaged by free markets we couldn't function. But without a strong element of individual freedom, efficient and well-directed markets, and true innovation coming from individuals and small businesses our society would also be dysfunctional.

I've seen a lot of unthinking criticism of political parties on both sides of this issue. The criticisms of Act - which could be loosely described as New Zealand's libertarian party - and the Greens - which are a broadly socialist and environmentalist party - are almost always based on perceptions of their underlying ideology rather than real policies and ideas. It's quite annoying really, because if people bothered to leave their biases behind an just look at the actual issues being addressed they might see that there are good ideas on all sides of politics. And bad ideas too, of course!

First, I want to look at the more libertarian ideas on how society should work. Basically, this philosophy says that the individual is key, that individuals should have the freedom to do what they want - as much as is practical - until they start encroaching on other people's rights, and that uncontrolled mechanisms - especially markets - are the best way to control and guide economic and social systems.

There is a range in the purity of these ideas. Some extremists are virtually indistinguishable from anarchists in that they want no government at all and individual freedom is everything. Others are more moderate and want most mechanisms to be in private ownership but make exceptions for a few key institutions like the military and police. And the most moderate want to use market mechanisms as much as possible but also realise that central government needs to step in when markets fail.

Naturally, being a moderate, I identify mainly with the last group. While it is tempting to demand complete freedom from government oppression, in the real world it quickly becomes apparent that other forms of control soon replace that which would otherwise come from government. So big corporations might gain too much power and use that for their own benefit and against the best interests of the majority.

And there are many activities which produce no immediate financial reward so are unlikely to be of much interest to commercial entities. For example, infrastructure to poor and isolated communities, specialised scientific research with no obvious commercial purpose, and social programs where no income is available don't fit into a commercial model based on traditional markets.

So what about the other side? Well, socialism emphasises state control and collectivism rather than individuality. If people cooperate instead of competing they can achieve a lot, and central control by a benign government seems like a great way to tackle the big problems through the insight of a group who can see "the big picture".

Again there is a wide range in how these concepts should be applied. In a purely socialist state, which might be something like the former USSR, all production, services, and other aspects of society are controlled by the government. Then there are more mixed models with strong central control but private enterprise also contributing, like China today, and finally there are essentially democratic, capitalist societies with strong elements of state control, like the Scandinavian states.

Again, I can see merit in the more moderate aspects of socialism. The miserable failure of so many states where a purer version of socialism has been tried should be enough to discourage most people from supporting that, but many people don't see it that way and claim that "real socialism" has never really been tried anywhere. Well I think a lot of those failed states think they were trying pure socialism, so the real-world reality might be a better indicator of socialism's merits than some theoretical concept which exists only in the minds of political ideologues.

In past posts I have discussed the way the "tragedy of the commons" and the "prisoner's dilemma" show that, even when acting purely rationally, individual action can lead to poor outcomes for everyone involved, so I think that almost without any chance of doubt eliminates the purely individual approach. And the failure and abject misery inflicted on the inhabitants of purely socialist states should be sufficient warning against taking the collectivist path too.

So a compromise is needed. The happiest countries in the world are regularly reported as those in Scandinavia, where a capitalist society is moderated by strong government control (and often high taxes, but quite extensive social services). But in many ways the US - which is still the most important and powerful country in the world, and where the majority of our technology, scientific advances, and social norms arise - has relatively weak central government control and tends more towards a pure market model. Which of those approaches is best in many ways depends on what you want to achieve: more individualism creates more innovation and more freedom, but more collectivism creates greater equality and happiness. Both approaches are good and bad.

I tend to favour a Keynesian style economy, where markets are allowed to work, but those markets are manipulated by the government to steer the outcomes in the "right" direction. Of course, that word right is in quotes for a reason, but at least in a democracy the people have the chance to choose a government whose interpretation of "right" is closest to their own.

Maybe somewhere out there is the perfect balance between collectivism and individualism. I suspect no country has discovered that balance yet, because where it is is largely subjective. Maybe the current system of countries each trying their own political experiments is the best one. But maybe it would be better if more governments looked at what works elsewhere and tried to implement the best ideas in their own jurisdictions.

No one knows where the best balance lies, but all I would advise is to keep away from the extremes. We need both collectivism and individualism, cooperation and competition, left and right.

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