Collectivism vs Individualism:  Some Thoughts about Independence Day

Collectivism vs Individualism:  Some Thoughts about Independence Day

by John Kelley

The primary political struggles throughout history are about striking the balance between individual and collective interests. When it comes to economic and political policy the two extremes are the central planning of totalitarian communism and the “free market conservative” position of no regulation of economics at all. As is typical in this country, the argument is somewhat nebulous. 

While the Democrats tend to believe in more government regulation of essential industries services people basic needs and more freedom regarding personal behavior, Republicans tend to focus on controlling people’s personal behavior and giving individuals and corporations untrammeled ability to impose their economic and political will on others in the name of personal freedom. Any attempt to limit this ability to exploit, repress or subjugate and balance it with the collective good, is quickly declared an imposition on personal freedom and property rights, and of course soviet style socialism. 

This argument is not new, the founders were certainly aware of it, and while denying rights to women, slaves and the landless, certainly recognized the necessity of both individual freedom and collective responsibility. Currently, we hear constant cries from right wing radio hosts and pundits about how the election of Barack Obama will lead to a socialist state with central planning. I have searched and searched, with no luck, for any indication of an attempt or proposal by Obama and other Democrats for this plan or goal to transfer all private property to the state. I would join them if I did. What he is proposing is bringing back into balance is economic freedom with collective responsibility.

The fact is that most of us already accept some “socialist” concepts in government when it comes to the “common welfare.” From garbage pickup, education, police and fire protection to Medicare and Social Security we accept the need for collective concepts as a part of our form of government.

What ought to be disturbing is that every industrial country that is performing better than us in healthcare, per capita income, freedom and economic growth is a socialist democracy with a stronger collective framework than us. The politically charged terms socialist and communist are quickly attached to any common purpose in an attempt to discredit it which would limit the control of the wealthy over government.

Our History of Collectivism

The fact is that our form of government and history all indicate the founders’ intent of a collective responsibility. “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” (Declaration of Independence) in other words, a collective purpose for the common good, the very definition of “socialism”.  The founders obvious commitment to this is simply the act of forming a representative democracy, squarely the first attempt to put a government in the “collective” control.

They emphasized the purposes of collective action in the declaration and the constitution, the equality of men in the eyes of government being the first recognition of the governed having the right to prevent despotism from injuring the common good for individual gain by forcing consensus decisions. From the declaration “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Then they went on to describe the common purpose of government to guarantee, “certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  They said the purpose of government was to “organiz(e)ing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”, in other words, to balance their collective safety and individual interests.

There is not enough room in this article to review the parallels between George Bush and the colonists’ proofs of “Tyranny” they “submitted to a candid world” against King George in order to justify their rebellion. This quote that they used in summary of their requests for relief from the burdensome mandates disregarding their persons and property and unheeded pleas for redress might say it however, “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” 

They ended the Declaration with this, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” In other words, a recognition of a collective interest greater than themselves or their personal property.

Again in the Constitution, the collective purpose is defined for our government in the preamble. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  The Constitutional separation of powers was set up specifically to prevent government from being tipped towards the concentration of power in special interests and insuring that government acted for the collective purpose.

This discussion throughout our history spawned the bill of rights, the repeal of slavery, the equal protection clause and the vote for women. The founders originally were primarily concerned about protection from government tyranny; after all it was a time when kings dominated. 

They saw the national economy as one in which they were jointly invested in and their principal fears of possible economic dominance being that of external empires, hence the war of 1812. They felt so strongly about this that while there was funding for a navy to protect trade and defense there was no plan for a standing army, (which Washington warned against in his farewell address) one they feared would be used by the government against its own people or for wars of aggression.

While there were regional rebellions, rent strikes, arguments over banking and other protests against the tyranny of wealth in the young country, wealth disparity was relatively small and not of concern to the government. Concentrated wealth was unable to shift the purpose of government to special economic interests until the Civil War grew many corporations to a size where they were influential shapers of policy. 

The Consequences of Unbridled Individualism

Abuses of economic power in the form of government subsidies, suppression of worker rights, and the destruction of small farms and businesses rode the excess of post-war railroad expansion and the rise of the great monopolies. The unbridled growth resulted in repeated severe economic swings, rife with wild speculation, often using “watered (overvalued) stock.”

This dominance of the expression of unfettered economic freedom resulted in wild fluctuations in the economy. From the 82 years from 1857-1939 had 17 recessions and three depressions, (1873-79, 1893-94, 1929-39) while the 70 years after progressive regulation came into play had 11 recessions and no depressions.

Wealth disparity and economic exploitation grew during the earlier cycle until it exploded in a backlash. In 1877 the great railroad strike marked the beginning of a populist uprising referred to as the progressive era that lasted through almost 1920 before being destroyed. Mostly by using the acquired legal power of government the wealthiest had secured as a weapon against the common man.

The collective actions, including strikes, organizing and political action citizens tried to use to rebalance the collective interests with those of individual or corporate wealth was destroyed by government assistance of almost every president of the era, with Wilson doing the most damage and Coolidge using the red scare to finish the job. They were continually labeled, reds, socialists, communists and anarchists. 

What they really were citizens with a collective desire for democratic input into the economy decisions making. Even reformers like Theodore Roosevelt used the power of the government in the interest corporations, hammering “radicals” for political purposes.  The failure of government co-opted by wealth to adequately regulate the growing power of selfish economic interests only ended in the self destructive excess that led to the great depression. 

A similar growth of economic self interest over government policy has repeated itself on a much greater scale since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the systematic idolatry of the deregulation of corporate behavior and worship of greed. Once again we are facing the collective consequences of extreme self interest dominating government. 

As in the great depression it will take a government that provides for the common good over the individual interest to restore the balance intended by the founders. It will only happen if we have the ability to believe in something bigger then ourselves. 

On this independence day it might be important to remember what Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock after Hancock talked of the need to maintain unity in support of the declaration with a dubious future, “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,”


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