Extreme individualism and extreme collectivism each pose their own problems. Common sense tells us to find a balance where we can work together collaboratively without succumbing either to selfish solipsism or to unthinking herd mentality.
Because political rhetoric often struggles to communicate nuance, politicians may appear to come down on one side or the other: either as individualists or collectivists. The lack of nuance may be even more pronounced in their characterization of their opponents.
William F. Buckley Jr. wrote of the Cold War in his book God and Man at Yale: "The duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world...[and] the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level." (His biographer Carl Bogus said that these "may be his historically most important two sentences.")
Originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 13, 2011.
A case study is the recent campaign literature by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican candidate for U.S. president in 2012. In On My Honor (2008), Perry complained that "liberals value the preservation of self-esteem above all else" and called out "counterculture activists" for "imposing a culture of self and moral relativism upon the nation." This characterizes the Left as a bunch of individualists. Not long afterward, he published Fed Up! (2010) which Newt Gingrich introduced with this comment: "The Left believes that most people are not capable of pursuing happiness and that a strong centralized government is best able to provide for them." This characterizes the Left as a bunch of collectivists.
Perry seems to have changed his mind, or at least his offensive strategy, over a short period of time. Unlike On My Honor, Fed Up! doesn't mention the terms "moral relativism" or "secular humanism" anywhere, nor does it identify individualism as a threat to "traditional values." Instead, Perry now seems to identify collectivism as a threat against the admirable virtue of individualism. For example, he is bothered by the Supreme Court's "intrusion into personal matters of morality and conscience" as well as by attempts to solve problems on a federal level when the local level usually provides better solutions "tailor[ed]...to our own values and perspectives."
Fed Up! contains laundry lists of the sorts of choices that Perry thinks the federal government should bow out of regulating: food, housing, healthcare, fuel, cars, guns, prayer, holidays, speech, contraception and capital punishment and everything in between. An important question remains: are these private lifestyle choices or can they be regulated by state (if not federal) law? He seems to go back and forth on the answer.
The problem presents itself in this way: Perry says that liberty requires permitting behaviors that don't hurt anyone and restricting only harmful practices. He also says that, under the idea of federalism and the Tenth Amendment, states have the authority to make their own laws. Are we to understand that there is more than one correct interpretation of liberty and more than one possible version of laws that uphold liberty? Or are some state governments mistaken in what they choose to regulate, and if so, does the Tenth Amendment nevertheless give them the right to impose their immoral law upon their citizens? This is a question involving the appropriate balance between individualism and collectivism.
Here is the same problem from another perspective: What should you do if you don't like the way your state government is being run? What if you suffer from a bungled bureaucracy, or worse, are victimized by intolerance? Should you, as a constituent who elects representatives, find a way to participate in politics to attempt to change your neighborhood for the better? On the contrary. Gov. Perry tells you that you should leave the state and go somewhere that is more to your liking. He says this multiple times in Fed Up!. He calls it "voting with your feet." He says that "the people" should call the shots to define the culture and the laws of their particular state, but at the end of the day, if you, as a political minority, remain dissatisfied, you should leave. Ultimately he seems to be saying that individual differences somehow threaten community cohesion and that people need to band together in collectives of like-minded people so that they do not rock the boat.
This is distressing for several reasons. Significantly, it assumes that the plaintiff has the ability to leave. Ill people and poor people may find relocation a hardship. Additionally, many Americans have family ties to a particular state, and telling them to leave the state is telling them that they need to choose between their values and their family. It also assumes that an individual who is bothered by a political situation should find a resolution that meets their own self-interest – moving away so that, in effect, they blind themselves to the problem by no longer having to see it directly – rather than taking the moral high road of putting personal effort into solving the problem, not only for their own sake, but on behalf of those who do not have the ability to advocate for themselves.
Deciding when to adjust our goals toward a particular side of the spectrum between individualism and collectivism, and when to tolerate, expect, or encourage dissenting input from others, is never easy. A good start is to avoid overgeneralizations about our own intentions and about the attitudes of others.