All Commentary
Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Collectivism as Apartism

Individualism and Cooperativism

Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom argues that while socialism in theory may be internationalist, in practice it is highly, sometimes violently, nationalist.

As the activities of government under socialism grow, he said, it becomes harder to make policy decisions democratically. Beyond a relatively short list of agenda items on which most can agree – national defense, for instance – the elected representatives who tax and spend will find it increasingly difficult to rationally prioritize a growing list of contentious objectives. Either decision-makers will have to agree on a Complete Ethical Code – one that ranks not only all that the government should do but also how much and how to pay for it – or it will have to find some way to make the public tolerate the increasingly controversial intrusions into their personal lives that comprehensive planning demands. The latter approach is usually more practicable, and the easiest way to do it is to unite the public against a common enemy, usually a foreign one or a locally despised minority. Nationalism, jingoism, and racism are the preferred methods.

My argument here is a little different from Hayek’s, but the paradox is similar.

Collectivism is supposed to unite people by having them work together toward some common goal. Economic collectivism, such as socialism, tries to do this by making “workers” understand their common interest in opposing capitalist oppression and supporting the radical redistribution of wealth. Racial collectivism unites by highlighting the superiority of one race over other races. Religious and other forms of collectivism work essentially the same way. While such comparisons needn’t breed antagonism, in practice they almost always do.

Bonding versus Bridging

Now everyone of necessity belongs to “collectives” of some kind. Families, religious organizations, clubs, schools, businesses, and neighborhoods each consist of common, in some sense collective, bonds. Such groups are normal parts of a healthy social order. Today we use the term “social network” to describe them.

All forms of collectivism exclude. The problem, at least from a classical-liberal standpoint, comes when outsiders are permanently excluded from the collective.

That is, while in a free society social networks also exclude to some degree, that’s usually because our knowledge of the trustworthiness (or some other relevant characteristic) of others is imperfect. So while a network can’t include anyone immediately, over time, as our knowledge improves, it will open itself to new members on an equal basis. For example, I believe that societies are free and civil to the degree that they treat children adopted into families the same as biological children, give those new to a religion the same standing as those born into it, regard race and sexual orientation as basically irrelevant, and so on.

In fact, as Ronald S. Burt points out, social networks in a free society emerge precisely because knowledge problems prevent everyone from being connected to everyone else. We know a lot about some people but little or nothing about most others, but that doesn’t stop us from relying on total strangers for our well-being. In a successful market economy, for example, we have to make contact and rely for a living on people the vast majority of whom we will never know. That’s where social networks come in. We need them, and the connections among them, to transmit the information about where all those opportunities for gainful association are.

The important thing is that people are allowed to make and break social ties over and over; to move freely about the social cosmos. That in fact is at the heart of classical-liberal civil society: the freedom of social and economic mobility. Social networks in a truly free society may be limited in size by how much we can know at any one time, but with few exceptions they are never closed permanently to outsiders.

Collectivism in Practice

Collectivist doctrines in theory don’t seem to recognize that we need to form social networks to overcome our limited knowledge; they instead try to impose a unity that doesn’t exist. As a result, collectivism forces togetherness on the masses and in so doing drives people apart who might otherwise come together voluntarily on their own.

But in practice collectivism doesn’t really seek to unite all of humankind. Rather the appeal of collectivism is to isolate what makes the particular group – economic class, race, or religion – different from, indeed superior to, all others. The fake collective does nothing but drive people apart, to disastrous effect.

Our bosses sometimes talk about staffs as being “one big family.” When, as is often the case, that’s not true, the hollowness of the statement does nothing to foster the trust and honesty necessary for the emergence of a true “family” in that sense. The same goes for the so-called “solidarity of the worker,” which is always solidarity against the exploitive classes. It’s the 99 percent against the 1 percent. It’s the Master Race against the inferior races. Collectivism of that sort should really be called “apartism.”


The opposite of collectivism is individualism. Somewhat paradoxically, however, it’s individualism that allows us to form our own voluntary collectives. But it’s not the simplistic individualism that begins and ends with “just leave me alone.” The doctrine of individualism indeed rests on the protection of individual rights – to person, property, and liberty – but that’s only the basis of the free society, not it’s perfection. What individualism promotes, especially in practice, is free association, or in other words the formation of a grand social network, of a Great Society (Karl Popper’s Hayek’s, not LBJ’s). The Great Society is the matrix that enables the life well lived. And, again, individualism respects the liberty of people to leave and enter and change social networks in pursuit of happiness as they see it, and encourages them to accommodate others in the same way. That kind of individualism could more accurately be called “cooperativism.”

Perhaps the secret of the classical liberalism that undergirds the free society is that it doesn’t ask us to agree on a endless laundry list of priorities – a Complete Ethical Code – in order to belong to the Great Society. Instead, diverse people come together out of genuine mutual interests, not contrived ones that don’t hold up. It includes the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the very ugly. As far as I’m concerned it’s the only meaningful collective there is.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.