Rand wrote this monograph in 1946, and it appeared originally in The Vigil, a publication of The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in Beverly Hills, California. The series is incomplete: the twelve questions reprinted here were only the first third of a longer project; the rest remains unwritten.
Read "Ayn Rand, the Movies, and the Idea of America," Laurie Rice's 2014 introduction.
Textbook of Americanism
by Ayn Rand
1. What Is the Basic Issue in the World Today?
The basic issue in the world today is between two principles: Individualism and Collectivism.
Individualism holds that man has inalienable rights which cannot be taken away from him by any other man, nor by any number, group or collective of other men. Therefore, each man exists by his own right and for his own sake, not for the sake of the group.
Collectivism holds that man has no rights; that his work, his body and his personality belong to the group; that the group can do with him as it pleases, in any manner it pleases, for the sake of whatever it decides to be its own welfare. Therefore, each man exists only by the permission of the group and for the sake of the group.
These two principles are the roots of two opposite social systems. The basic issue of the world today is between these two systems.
2. What Is a Social System?
A social system is a code of laws which men observe in order to live together. Such a code must have a basic principle, a starting point, or it cannot be devised. The starting point is the question: Is the power of society limited or unlimited?
Individualism answers: The power of society is limited by the inalienable, individual rights of man. Society may make only such laws as do not violate these rights.
Collectivism answers: The power of society is unlimited. Society may make any laws it wishes, and force them upon anyone in any manner it wishes.
Example: Under a system of Individualism, a million men cannot pass a law to kill one man for their own benefit. If they go ahead and kill him, they are breaking the law — which protects his right to life — and they are punished.
Under a system of Collectivism, a million men (or anyone claiming to represent them) can pass a law to kill one man (or any minority), whenever they think they would benefit by his death. His right to live is not recognized.
Under Individualism, it is illegal to kill the man and it is legal for him to protect himself. The law is on the side of a right. Under Collectivism, it is legal for the majority to kill a man and it is illegal for him to defend himself. The law is on the side of a number.
In the first case, the law represents a moral principle.
In the second case, the law represents the idea that there are no moral principles, and men can do anything they please, provided there's enough of them.
Under a system of Individualism, men are equal before the law at all times. Each has the same rights, whether he is alone or has a million others with him.
Under a system of Collectivism, men have to gang up on one another — and whoever has the biggest gang at the moment, holds all rights, while the loser (the individual or the minority)