The Individual Vs the Collective

Excerpt by John "Birdman" Bryant


The following is an excerpt from "The Organization or the Individual" By William H Peterson, found at:

An Invisible Hand

Oftentimes, legislators and economic managers, acting under this misapprehension, appeal for altruism and "the common good" rather than self-interest. But as Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations:

As every individual ... endeavors as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.3

Two historic examples of appeals to individuals to work for "the public interest" are the experiences of the Plymouth and Virginia colonists in the early Seventeenth Century. In each case, the colonists were asked to cultivate the fields in common, with the harvests going into a common storehouse. Communal cultivation failed in both cases despite the religious fervor of the colonists. As Governor Bradford wrote in his history of the Plymouth experience:

" For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour and service did repine that they should spend their time and streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in divission of victails and cloaths, than be that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injuestice . . . "

They Tried Freedom

The elders of the Plymouth colony were in a quandary, with famine and extinction facing them. How could they get the colonists to apply themselves for their own salvation? With luck they hit upon the idea of free enterprise and private ownership. The outcome was spectacular. [Governor Bradford again]:

" By the time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plentie ... And the effect of their particuler [private] planting was well seene, for all had, one way and the other, pretty well to bring the year aboute, and some of the abler sorte and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so an any generall wante or fan-line hath not been amongst them since to this day. "

Similar results marked the experience of the Virginia colony, as reported by Captain John Smith:

" When our people were fed out of the common store, and laboured jointly together, glad was be could slip from his labour, or slumber over his taske he cared not how, nay, the most honest among them would hardly take so much true paines in a weeke, as now for themselves they will doe in a day... "

Does all this mean that the free and responsible individual following his self-interest puts aside any feeling for cooperation with others and for the plight of others? No, it doesn't. It means that the free and responsible individual recognizes his duties and obligations in all relationships he has voluntarily entered. He recognizes that he benefits from cooperation with other individuals, that he shares in the knowledge of others, that he consumes the production of others, and that he enjoys the company of others.

But the free and responsible individual naturally objects to being his brother's keeper-by law. He objects to being made to do good - by law. He objects to being required to sacrifice for others - by law. In all these instances, he is taken for granted-treated as a cog in a state machine.

The individual can become resentful. As he loses freedom, he tends to shed responsibility. Recall the era of Prohibition when Uncle Sam issued the 11th Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Drink." But the individual drank as never before, and today we justly remember the era as the "Roaring Twenties."

For the Good of the Whole

Still, the appeal to the individual to suppress his own interests for the "good" of all goes on and on - no matter, it seems, what the form of government.

Proclaimed Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda and an official of the National Socialist Workers Party: "To be a socialist is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole."4

Said Stalin: "True Bolshevik courage does not consist in placing one's individual will above the will of the Comintern. True courage consists in being strong enough to master and overcome one's self and subordinate one's will to the will of the collective, the will of the higher party body."5

Hitler: "It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation . . . that the higher interests involved in the life of the whole must here set the limits and lay down the duties of the interests of the individual."6

Yet political thoughts predicated on the submergence of the individual are not alien to democracies. In our own country, for example, President Johnson declared: "We are going to take all of the money that we think is unnecessarily being spent and take it from. the 'haves' and give it to the 'have-nots' that need it so much."7 And, in a similar vein, President Kennedy said: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."8

As the authors of The Incredible Bread Machine comment: "It is by taking humanitarianism to its logical political consequence that dictatorships are established and the rights of individual people ravaged. Controlled housing. Controlled prices. Controlled wages. Controlled business. Controlled unions. Controlled money. Controlled banking. Controlled television. Controlled news. Controlled people."9




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