When we normally think of the “political spectrum,” we picture a linear scale extending in opposite directions. The left side we think of as “liberal” or “progressive,” and the right side we consider “conservative.”
We like to use this one dimensional map as a way of comparing and contrasting different ideologies and beliefs, simplifying the complexities of politics into a neat and straightforward tool.
Besides all of the obvious problems when simplifying ideologies into a single scale, there’s another important complication that is less obvious. The left-right spectrum views conservatism and progressivism as opposites. But in reality the two sides tend to share an important commonality: adherents on both sides of the ideological spectrum often seek to impose their personal views on the rest of society.
For that reason, I propose a different approach.
Instead of mapping ideologies based on their social beliefs, we should map ideologies based on how much they seek to impose their social beliefs on others. In other words, ideas should be judged based on how much choice they leave to the citizen and how much they allow individuals to live by their lifestyle and morals. One side of this proposed spectrum allows individuals to live by their accords and ideals, whereas the other seeks to enforce their own judgements on the lives of others.
The first side of this spectrum is known as “individualism.” As Ayn Rand writes, “Individualism regards man… as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being.”
Individualism believes that every person, because they are rational and equal, are independent beings entitled to the largest possible domain of freedom. This freedom of choice and action only stops when it directly conflicts with the ability of others to do the same, mainly if it intrudes upon their life, liberty, or property.
To an individualist, the maximum role of the government is to protect our lives, liberty, and property. If the government were to perform an additional task, whether it be for “progressive” or “conservative” ends, it would be, in the words of Frédéric Bastiat, “legalized plunder.”
Because the government is funded by taxation, and taxation is the forced confiscation of some of our property, the individualist believes that the government should at most perform tasks that defend and enable individual freedom.
Ultimately, individualism is the idea that we shouldn’t impose a way of life or certain ideas on the rest of society. It believes that humans are a diverse, intricate species that should have the freedom to make their own choices. We should be free to choose and act as our hearts desire, so long as such choices don’t directly conflict with others’ rights to do the same.
The other side of this spectrum is “collectivism,” and it encompasses most of the beliefs we are commonly exposed to. Whether it be conservatism, progressivism, or socialism, collectivism involves the imposition of a certain belief or point of view on the rest of society.
Whereas the key tenet of individualism is the maximization of freedom in order to live by one’s own morals, a key tenet of collectivist ideologies is the willingness to use coercive means to promote a desired social or economic agenda. This may come in two forms. The government might subsidize activities they endorse, or they might restrict people’s freedom through regulations for activities they disapprove of.
Unfortunately, this tendency is ubiquitous in our current political landscape, existing on both sides of the left-right spectrum.
The right side of the modern political spectrum, although it does tend to value individualist ideas such as constitutionalism and economic freedom, is nevertheless drawn to certain collectivist tendencies. Conservatives have supported tariffs, expanded military power, supported the criminalization of same sex marriage, and embraced policies such as the War on Drugs.
With that said, the left side of the spectrum is arguably worse, arguing for universal healthcare, “free” college, an expanded welfare state, gun control measures, and as a result, increased taxation. The point is, both conservative and progressive causes often involve the imposition of an idea over the entire populace, either by forcing the public to pay for a policy or by restricting their freedom of choice.
Universal healthcare, “free” college, the expansion of military power, and so forth are all collectivist because they seek to promote the “common good” by forcing citizens to pay for it. This means that less of their money goes to purchasing the things that they actually want, and instead goes to funding things that they may not want or don’t benefit from.
The Ultimate Dichotomy
One may be tempted to assume that individualism is a form of egoism or selfishness. But in his classic work The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek points out that this is hardly the case.
“(Individualism) merely starts from the indisputable fact that the limits of our powers of imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values more than a sector of the needs of the whole society,” Hayek observed.
We, as individuals, want to further our own interests, and we should be granted as much freedom as possible to pursue this end.
Our freedoms cannot be curtailed for some variant of the “common good,” because that necessarily infers that someone decides what the “common good” is, and allows their decisions to triumph over the rights of individuals—the protection of which is the very purpose of government.
George Orwell, the author of 1984 and one of the great prophets of the twentieth century, once observed that the left versus right dichotomy no longer served in the modern world.
“The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians,” Orwell wrote in a 1948 letter to Malcolm Muggeridge.
Orwell was right. And going forward, we should acknowledge the collectivistic tendencies in our politics.
This simple acknowledgement is the first step toward a universal human goal: to live by the ideals we find reasonable, to set our own standards, abide by our own principles, and not be restricted or dispossessed by those who believe they know what’s best for us.