Liberal Collectivism, Conservative Collectivism, and the Libertarian Answer

Liberalism and conservatism are simply two sides of a collectivist coin, minted with the dual airs of superiority and inferiority. To the extent that either are coherent political ideologies, they cohere around groupings, aggregation, and stereotypes. The only difference is how they respond to the various collectives into which they carve up society.

Collectivism inevitably leads to “less than” and “greater than” judgements and comparisons between groups. If I’m in group X, groups Y and Z are either less than or greater than my own.  

Liberals respond to those in groups they perceive as less than with pity. Conservatives respond with fear.

Liberals place the poor and those of different genders or races or religions or lifestyles on a kind of pedestal, because they pity them. Liberals fear in the open give and take of culture that individuals in these groups would suffer. It is not enough to defend the rights of outcasts, they must be lionized, praised, rewarded, and supported just for being a part of their collective.

Conservatives place similar groups on trial and consider them a threat to their way of life and culture. Guilty until proven innocent, they are dangerous, possibly terrorists, or radicals, or lowlifes who should be shunned, shamed, caged, or even killed. Conservatives fear in the open give and take of culture that these groups would overtake their own and push them into exclusion or extinction. It is not enough to disagree with the habits or disassociate with outcasts, they must be demonized, put down, and punished just for being a part of their collective.

Liberals respond to those in groups they see as greater than with envy, conservatives with idolatry.

Liberals place the rich and those in majority races or religions or with common lifestyles on trial and consider them a threat that may stifle all culture progress and diversity. Guilty until proven innocent, they are powerful, privileged, corrupt, and ready to smash everyone else. Liberals fear that individuals in these groups would persecute anyone different and must be called out, shamed, shunned, dispossessed, exiled, caged or even killed.

Conservatives place the rich and those in majority (or “traditional”) races or religions or with common lifestyles on pedestals and consider them the last defense against dangerous shifts in culture. Conservatives fear that individuals in these groups would be destroyed by the angry outcast mob, and must be praised, looked up to, protected, given power and a mandate to do whatever it takes to survive the winds of change.

Both outlooks are demeaning, condescending and small minded. Both feed the lowest human impulses. Both are anti-humanitarian. The fundamental fault is the same: the suffocation of the individual in a sea of collective biases.

The classical liberal, or libertarian tradition has an elegant and humanitarian solution to this ugly state of affairs. It offers a truly unique perspective that avoids the simplistic pity, fear, envy, and idolatry of both modern liberalism and conservatism. Individualism.

Individualism is not the belief that groups or communities are useless. It has nothing to do with dog-eat-dog, or relentless competition. It certainly doesn’t involved zero-sum games. Individualism is simply the belief that the fundamental, acting unit of any human society is the individual human.

Only individuals can act. Only individuals can dream. Only individuals can be morally or practically responsible (or irresponsible). In matters of broad institutions or systems like laws or civic norms, all individuals are equals.

Individualism does not pretend that everyone has the same biological makeup or cultural background. Quite the opposite. Only individualism allows each person’s unique characteristics, challenges, and advantages to be taken for what they are.

Individualism does not condescend to anyone and assume they are helpless unless propped up with false praise or support simply because of some characteristic they happen share with other individuals. Nor does it assume they are bad or threatening and must be held down for the same reason.

Individualism does away with the “less than”/”greater than” group distinction entirely. People may pursue what they wish. They ought to be afforded the respect and dignity of enjoying the rewards of their actions as well as bearing the responsibility. This does not rule out charity or kindness or sympathy. The individualist is just as caring as the next person, but in response to individual need or concern, not assumptions based on group identity. Nor does the individualist take a rosy view of humanity or rule out caution or the possibility that people can do bad things. The individualist is just as realistic as the next person, but in response to individual situation and behavior, not incidental commonalities with collectives.

Only through the lens of individualism can genuine community emerge. Community based on voluntary association or disassociation, always accountable to the costs and benefits of both, and borne by those who practice them. One of the marks of a human growing from a child into a healthy adult is when they despise being treated as more praiseworthy or needy or dangerous or stupid than other adults. When we collectivise we infantilize everyone.

Don’t get caught up in heated arguments about whether the “less thans” and “greater thans” should be praised and propped up or criticized and brought down. Both outlooks are rooted in collectivism, both are uncivilized and uninformed, and both are very dangerous and have led to untold suffering and bloodshed when wielded by political powers. Libertarianism allows a simple change in perspective that lets us rise above both.

Ayn Rand famously said, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual.” Once we realize that we each belong first and foremost to a category of one, we are left no option but to judge an individual according to his or her actions and the outcomes they produce.

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