Individualism vs. Collectivism – A False Choice

Individualism vs. Collectivism – A False Choice November 8, 2011

We are born selfish. Among the first words a child learns are “no!” and “mine!” Our evolutionary instincts for self-preservation and self-advancement are very old and very strong. That’s not a bad thing. If we didn’t have those instincts (or more precisely, if our ancestors hadn’t had them) our species wouldn’t have survived and we wouldn’t be here at all.

The thing is, nobody likes being on the other end of those 3-year-old rants. So we teach our children to share, to be generous, to learn that giving can be as rewarding as getting. We teach them reciprocity – that if we share with others they will share with us.

But how much should we share? What should we share? Who should we share with and under what conditions? These are basic but incredibly difficult questions humans have been trying to answer since before we were human. They are at the core of all our social, economic and religious traditions.

Hunter-gatherer societies are (or were – there aren’t many left) collective and egalitarian. These societies have narrowly defined roles based on gender and age, but there is no inequality of wealth among the members of the tribe – resources are shared equally. Primitive societies have little material wealth to begin with – if one or two people hoard even a small amount the survival of the tribe may be jeopardized. And if that hoarding is discovered, the cohesion of the tribe will be jeopardized. Another of those very ancient 3-year-old-isms is “not fair!” – which usually means “somebody else got something I didn’t get.” Social pressures to share and to conform are immense.

The problem with this – as any free market conservative will be happy to tell you – is that enforced egalitarianism stifles creativity and productivity, and it’s creativity and productivity that have moved us out of caves and into iPhones.

Remove the social pressure to share equally and the selfish instinct motivates people to work harder and to try new ways of doing things so they can get more for themselves – you get industriousness and innovation. You also get inequality – some have more, others have less. As long as there’s enough for everyone that’s only a minor problem (there would be no OWS if the economy was booming like it was in the Clinton years). But let it go on for very long and inequality turns into hierarchy and hierarchy produces chiefs, warlords, kings and CEOs. The strong rule and take the best, the weak serve and take what’s left. On an evolutionary scale this is a step backward to the alpha male dominated societies of chimps and gorillas.

Ethical religions and the rule of law arose in response to the excesses and abuses of these hierarchies. Their civilizing and humanizing forces have been only partially successful.

The excesses of large corporations and the financial industry are nothing new. This is what happens when selfish instincts are left unchecked by intense social pressure or by the force of law. People see a way to make big money for themselves, the culture celebrates taking risks, and if other people get hurt in the process so be it. The alpha males (and a few females) get the money and power and everyone else cleans up the mess.

I’m sure some of those early warlords were great guys who did amazing things for their tribes. But whatever good they did didn’t warrant the development of feudalism and the divine right of kings. Likewise, there are some people in every industry who make tons of money and earn every penny. But that doesn’t justify a system where a few profit at the expense of the many.

This is not a call for collectivism. Remember the hunter-gatherer societies – pure egalitarianism brings conformity and stagnation. Individualism vs. collectivism is a false choice promoted by those who want to keep the status quo and by those who think the status quo is unfair to the warlords of Wall Street.

This is a call for an adult economic system, a grown up financial industry and a mature government. It does us no good for one side to scream “mine!” while the other side screams “not fair!”

In the next post I’ll talk more specifically about the structural and systemic issues that got us into this mess.

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