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Humanity Can Be Best Understood in a Collective Context
by Lawrence W. Reed
There are two basic prisms through which we can see, study, and
prescribe for human society: individualism and collectivism. These
worldviews are as different as night and day, and they create a
great divide in the social sciences. That's because the perspective
from which you see the world will set your thinking down one
intellectual path or another.
Advocates of personal and economic freedom are usually in the
individualism camp, whereas those who think of themselves these
days as "progressives" are firmly in the camp of collectivism.
I think of it as the difference between snowstorms and
snowflakes. A collectivist sees humanity as a snowstorm, and that's
as up-close as he gets if he's consistent. An individualist sees
the storm, too, but is immediately drawn to the uniqueness of each
snowflake that composes it. The distinction is fraught with
No two snowstorms are alike, but a far more amazing fact is that
no two snowflakes are identical either-at least so far as
painstaking research has indicated. Wilson Alwyn Bentley of
Jericho, Vermont, one of the first known snowflake photographers,
developed a process in 1885 for capturing them on black velvet
before they melted. He snapped pictures of about 5,000 of them and
never found two that were the same-nor has anyone else ever since.
Scientists believe that changes in humidity, temperature, and other
conditions prevalent as flakes form and fall make it highly
unlikely that any one flake has ever been precisely duplicated.
(Ironically, Bentley died of pneumonia in 1931 after walking six
miles in a blizzard. Lesson: One flake may be harmless, but a lot
of them can be deadly).
Contemplate this long enough and you may never see a snowstorm
(or humanity) the same way again.
Dr. Anne Bradley is vice president of economic initiatives at
the Institute for Faith, Work
and Economics. At a recent FEE seminar in Naples, Florida, she
explained matters this way:
When we look at a snowstorm from a distance, it looks like
indistinguishable white dots peppering the sky, one blending into
the next. When we get an up-close glimpse, we see how intricate,
beautiful, and dissimilar each and every snowflake is. This is
helpful when thinking about humans. From a distance, a large crowd
of people might look the same, and it's true that we possess many
similar characteristics. But we know that a more focused inspection
brings us nearer to the true nature of what we're looking at. It
reveals that each of us bears a unique set of skills, talents,
ambitions, traits, and propensities unmatched anywhere on the
This uniqueness is critical when we make policy decisions and
offer prescriptions for society as a whole; for even though we each
look the same in certain respects, we are actually so different,
one to the next, that our sameness can only be a secondary
The late Roger J. Williams, author of You Are
Extra-Ordinary and Free and Unequal: The
Biological Basis of Individual Liberty (as well as
several articles in The Freeman), was a noted
biochemistry professor at the University of Texas in Austin. He
argued that fingerprints are but one of endless biological
characteristics unique to each of us, including the contours and
operation of our brains, nerve receptors, and circulatory
These facts offer biological bases for the many other
differences between one person and the next. Einstein, he noted,
was an extremely precocious student of mathematics, but he learned
language so slowly that his parents were concerned about his
learning to talk. Williams summed it well more than 40 years ago
when he observed, "Our individuality is as inescapable as our
humanity. If we are to plan for people, we must plan for
individuals, because that's the only kind of people there are."
Proceeding one step further, we must recognize that only
individuals plan. When collectives are said to "plan" (e.g., "The
nation plans to go to war"), it always reduces to certain,
specific, identifiable individuals making plans for other
individuals. The only good answer to the collectivist question,
"What does America eat for breakfast?" is this: "Nothing. However,
about 315 million individual Americans often eat breakfast. Many of
them sometimes skip it, and on any given day, there are 315 million
distinct answers to this question."
Collectivist thinking is simply not very deep or thorough.
Collectivists see the world the way Mr. Magoo did-as one big blur.
But unlike Mr. Magoo, they're not funny. They homogenize people in
a communal blender, sacrificing the discrete features that make us
who we are. The collectivist "it takes a village" mentality assigns
thoughts and opinions to amorphous groups, when, in fact, only
particular people hold thoughts and opinions.
Collectivists devise one-size-fits-all schemes and care little
for how those schemes may affect the varied plans of real people.
Any one flake means little or nothing to the collectivist because
he rarely looks at them; and in any event, he implicitly dismisses
the flakes because there are so many to play with. Collectivists
are usually reluctant to celebrate the achievements of individuals
per se because they really believe that, to quote President Obama,
"you didn't build that."
Take individuals out of the equation and you take the humanity
out of whatever you're promoting. What you'd never personally
inflict on your neighbor, one on one, you might happily sanction if
you think it'll be carried out by some faceless, collective entity
to some amorphous blob on behalf of some nebulous "common good."
The inescapable fact is that we are not interchangeable. Cogs in a
machine are, but people most emphatically are not.
If this point is lost on you, then watch the 1998 DreamWorks
animated film "Antz." The setting is an ant colony in which all
ants are expected to behave as an obedient blob. This is very
convenient for the tyrant ants in charge, each of which possesses a
very unique personality indeed. The debilitating collectivist
mindset is shaken by a single ant who marches to a different
drummer-namely, his own self-and ultimately saves the colony
through his individual initiative.
Karl Marx was a collectivist. Mother Theresa was an
individualist. One dealt with people in lumps. The other one
treated them as individuals. The lessons in that clear-cut
dichotomy are legion. They are ignored only at great peril.
So what does humanity look like to you-a snowstorm or
If your answer is the latter, then you understand what the
philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin meant when he wrote in
1958, "But to manipulate men, to propel them toward goals which
you-the social reformers-see, but they may not, is to deny their
human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own,
and therefore to degrade them."
"Individualism, Collectivism and Other Murky Labels" by Sheldon
"Maverick Mark Twain's Exhilarating American Individualism" by
Jim Powell: http://tinyurl.com/o3q92ll
"Methodological Individualism" by Warren Gibson: http://tinyurl.com/knmdxhb
"Hayek on Individualism" by Sheldon Richman: http://tinyurl.com/khshbkp