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« On the Constitution | Main | A 3 Sentence Litmus Test For GOP Candidates »

On The Individual

By: John W. Simmons

As this mid-term election year heats up, the political sphere is becoming more and more splintered.  New Senator Scott Brown won his seat for Massachusetts in no small part by distancing himself from the GOP establishment.[1]  President Obama’s healthcare initiative fell apart amid criticism from the left wing of his own party that it did not go far enough,[2] while the more “moderate” democrats in the Senate commanded millions in political favors and held up the bill in favor of more moderate provisions.[3]  Senator John McCain’s daughter, Meghan, is taking heat this week for calling herself a “Progressive Republican.”[4]  A controversial National Convention is threatening to split up the Tea Party movement, which has been struggling to maintain its distance from the GOP anyway.[5]  It is becoming more and more difficult to keep track of all of the different views within the two major parties.

This is the time in our electoral process when party primary rivals try to out-radical one another, with Republicans jockeying for position farthest to the Right, and Democrats racing Left.  In a few short weeks those same candidates will be running to the center, vying for independent voters with the same vigor that they pursued their party’s most ardent ideologues.  We live in a polarized America – the most polarized it’s ever been with a first-year president.  Americans are farther Right and Left than they’ve ever been, and politicians don’t even know where they are.  But the worst problem is this: we’re not even using the right scale.

Politics should not be measured by “Left” and “Right.”  The best way to understand the political spectrum is on a scale from “Individualism” to “Collectivism.”  The real question is whether a candidate wants to use political power for the protection of the individual, or for the advancement of the community.  At first glance, this question seems easy.  Why wouldn’t we work together?  Shouldn’t the greater good outweigh the interests of the individual?  Shouldn’t the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one?  The answer to all of these questions is undeniably, “Yes!”

Unfortunately, collectivism in politics is an inherently state-centered philosophy.  To say that the needs of the many should outweigh the desires of the few is to say that you know what the needs of the many are.  People who advocate for policy in the name of the community invariably are asking the government to enforce their view of what society should be and where society should go.  Efforts to plan and direct the directions of countries in the name of the common good generally lead to tyranny of everyone.  On the other hand, protecting each person as an individual leads to a freer, flourishing society.  Why?  Because using the coercive power of the state to promote any given end necessarily and artificially chills the benefits of alternative directions, but when individuals are left to themselves, they can pursue conflicting ends without arbitrary obstacles.  When you take care of the flowers, the garden takes care of itself.

There will be other places to discuss exactly how and why and individualist society is superior to a collectivist one.  Benefits of things like free markets, private property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and political participation all flow from the principle of individualism.   For the moment, it is most important to see that the state should set individual rights and interests above collective interests simply because each person is valuable as an individual, and failure to recognize that value is a threat to liberty.  We believe that “all men are created equal,” but implicit in that statement is that all men are created people.  Each person has dignity and value as an individual, regardless of his circumstances, his history, his race or his creed.  To pursue a policy in which the individual’s interests are cast aside in favor of a group interest (as determined by mere individuals) is asking for tyranny. Collectivism requires the state to determine winners and losers and to enforce that decision over everyone. 

The problem with the conventional Left-Right political spectrum is that it only asks, “What should the government place above the individual?”  Leftists would sacrifice the individual for material equality, environmental protection, and other things.  The Right is often just as ready to sacrifice the individual for security or for moral or social order.  As we move into primary and election season, we need to begin asking not just when, but how much we should value the individual.  There will always be pet projects and politically expedient policies that will tempt one side or another to put forth a collectivist policy.  There are even cases in which collective action is entirely justified.  But if we fail to understand that basic human dignity can only be measured on the individual level, we risk following the good intentions of either party down a road to oppression that cannot be reversed.