We recommend first reading our post “What is Individualism?”
If you’ve already read our page on individualism, then it may be easiest to understand collectivism as individualism’s direct opposite. Individualism champions self-reliance, self-determination, and individual liberty; collectivism says that each individual must be made to serve the interests of society as a whole, regardless of his or her own desires, values, or ambitions. According to collectivism, your life doesn’t belong to you. If the way that you want to live your life doesn’t conform with someone else’s idea of the “common good,” then you must be forced into submission.
Do Individualists Care About the Common Good?
Proponents of individualism don’t deny the importance of the common good. Individualists simply believe that the common good of society can be advanced only by the “spontaneous order” that occurs when individuals are free to direct their own lives. When individuals pursue their own ambitions, they find that their own interests are best served by collaborating with and creating value for others. Thus, the combined effects of individual pursuits elevate society as a whole towards greater wellbeing. This is why social, economic, and cultural progress can best be achieved by liberating and empowering individuals to pursue their own visions for their lives
Collectivists, on the other hand, view self-interest as opposed to the common good in an irreconcilable conflict. They believe that individuals cannot be trusted with the responsibility of promoting social or economic well being. Instead, elite guardians who supposedly possess extraordinary wisdom and intelligence are charged with orchestrating economic and social progress from a position of central authority. All other individuals must conform to group identities so that they can effectively play the part that has been assigned to them.
The Hubris of Collectivism
The problem with collectivism is that no government or committee is wise or knowledgeable enough to orchestrate something as complex as the common good of human society. Can you think of anyone who you would trust with such a responsibility? Even if such a body did exist, would you give them the right to force you into the role that they believed would best serve their version of the common good? Of course not!
Fortunately, we don’t have to depend on a class of super-humans to tell us how best to live our lives. We can each discover this on our own by living boldly and entrepreneurially and by learning from our successes and our mistakes. When individuals are given the freedom and the tools that they need to vigorously pursue their ambitions, they quickly learn that their personal happiness depends largely on their ability to create positive experiences for others. In this way, each member of society contributes to the discovery and advancement of the common good by striving to be the best possible version of themselves.