Free market capitalism has resulted in more freedom and prosperity than the world has ever known. It is also the most moral political-economic system being based on an ethics of individual rights and peaceful, voluntary human association.
It is for this reason that all forms of collectivism in modern times – Soviet communism, German Nazism, Islamic fundamentalism – reject philosophical, political and economic individualism.
Why? Because individualism denies that there exist societal or political or religious “collectives” independent and separate from any individuals who choose or who are compelled to be part of them, and for which they are to sacrifice their life and personal purposes.
Individualism insists on the right of the individual to live and act for himself, guided by his own values, beliefs, and purposes in peaceful and non-compulsory association with others in society.
The death and destruction that has accompanied Soviet socialism, Nazi racism, and now Islamic extremism can all be seen to originate from and depend upon the misplaced idea that social, racial and religious collectives are “real” and individuals have no existence other than to serve and sacrifice for them, as the demagogic ideologues claiming to speak for these competing collectivisms insist.
This is why the defense of individualism is so important. It the only political-philosophic bulwark upon which a successful defense of liberty can be made and sustained.
Individualism vs. Sacrificial Collectivism
Richard Ebeling Ph.,D.
Free, competitive markets have been the engine for both freedom and prosperity. In addition, free market capitalism is morally based on the principle of individual rights to life, liberty and honestly acquired property, in which all social relationships require the voluntary and mutual consent of the participants.
Private property rights are central to the free society. The most fundamental private property right is the right of each person to own himself – his mind, his body, his peaceful actions, and the fruits of his efforts either on his own or in interaction with others.
The opposite of owning yourself is slavery. Under a slave system some individuals assert the right to own and control the actions of others under the threat or use of force. The slave lives and works for and obeys the commands of another human being with violence the ultimate instrument of control.
Slavery in All Forms is the Opposite of Freedom
For the friend of freedom, it does not matter whether the slave-master is one private individual on his own, or a private group or gang imposing their coercive rule on a number of others in society. Nor does it matter if the group is a political collective that imposes its will on another segment of the society based upon a “democratic” decision-making process.
Regardless of the institutional circumstance and situation under which one person is made to live and work (completely or partly) for another, it remains a total or partial restraint on the individual’s right to live his own life as he sees fit for the purposes that he considers of value and of importance so he may give meaning and possible happiness to his existence.
Critics of this “individualistic” understanding of freedom and its opposite often brand such a perspective as “selfish” or “egotistical.” If to say that an individual should be treated and respected as an end in himself and not the compelled pawn or a tool to serve the ends of another is selfish or egotistical, then the very definition of liberty – if liberty is to mean anything – cannot be separated from the person’s right to be self-oriented.
Collectivist Confusions and Misconceptions
There is no collective mind, or body, or purpose. The fact is, the world is comprised only of individuals. What often causes confusions and misconceptions is that individuals are born into families, grow up in communities, and live their lives in arenas of societal interaction and association.
And due to this many of the beliefs, values, and purposes we hold as individuals have been taken as our own from the surrounding people, groups, and communities of others with whom we have grown into adulthood.
We find ourselves holding many of the same beliefs, values and purposes as many of the others around us. They are the commonly shared and taken-for-granted ideas, ideals, attitudes, and presumptions about “the way things work” and how things are or supposed to be.
Yet, nonetheless, unless and until those beliefs, values and purposes become accepted and motivating for each and every individual influenced by them, they have no effect or power over him.
These beliefs, values and purposes seem to be outside and independent of ourselves, with a seeming life and reality of their own; an transcendent entity of some sort that defines who and what we are, and outside of which our individual life seems to have neither existence nor meaningful orientation.
Philosophers have referred to this as the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” To assign physical or some other objective reality to an idea or concept that is used to categorize or classify a series of beliefs, attitudes, or other characteristics that a group of individuals are postulated as possessing in common and which are then is used to define who and what those individuals are, and outside of which those people have no real existence.
Soviet Collectivism and Social Class-Based Sacrifice
If this seems rather abstract or amorphous, the seeming reality of such a transcendent collective entity into which we are born and live out our lives, and for which we are expected to serve and sacrifice has been used as the basis for some of the most manipulative and brutal ideologies of our times.
Marxian socialism conjured up the image of everyone in society divided into “social classes” defined by whether they privately owned the means or production or sold their labor services to those private owners. It was insisted that these two “classes” of people were in irreconcilable antagonism and conflict with each other over the control and use of the land, resources and capital equipment without which needed and desired goods and services cannot be produced.
In this Marxian world, the property-owning capitalists were the exploiters of the workers, who were deprived of part of what they produced. The Marxian socialists portrayed the human condition under capitalism as a great morality play between the exploited and the exploiters.
By definition, anyone in the other “social class” was an inescapable “enemy” of everyone one in your own social class. The Marxian ideologues leading the socialist revolutions of the twentieth century often viewed themselves as, or at least took on the public mantle of appearing to be, secular prophets bearing sword and fire to cleanse the world of the exploiters denying “social justice” to the greater part of humanity.
To cleanse the world not only were tens of millions condemned to death through execution, torture, slave labor, or starvation, but also all members of the righteous “workers’ class” had the obligation to live, work and obey the revolutionary leaders claiming to speak for the good of “humanity” as a whole.
To not do so, to not sacrifice, work, and live for the socialist collective was a sign that one was a “wrecker,” an “enemy of the people,” or an agent of the “class enemies” trying to undermine or destroy the great socialist revolutionary cause. (See my article, “The Human Cost of Socialism in Power.”)
Nazi Collectivism and Race-Based Sacrifice
The other great and destructive twentieth century manifestation of this fallacy of misplaced concreteness was the racial ideology of the National Socialist (Nazi) movement in Germany. Human identity as a biological and social being was determined by one’s genetic make-up, with the defining characteristic of who and what you were being based on “the blood” that flowed in your veins.
Nazism was an outgrowth of the eugenics movement that asserted that what a person is, was dictated by their genetic make-up. But this was not only a matter of the physical characteristics that one inherited from one’s ancestors through one’s parents. No, it was claimed that genetics also was a, if not “the,” defining basis of personality and behavioral proclivities.
Thus, whether one was prone to be a murderer or a malcontent or a moocher on others could be predicted by one’s biological ancestry. Thus, the “sins” of the father and the mother could be predicted to fall upon the children through genetic transmission. The conclusion was that the spreading of the “bad seed” to future generations could be contained through compulsory sterilization and through managed sexual bleeding to create a biologically and socially superior human type. (See my article, “The Nazi Connection.”)
Hitler and the National Socialists defined “the Germans” as the superior and “master” race in physical, mental and social characteristics; they then proceeded to classify all other “races” in descending order of “purity.” Of course, the “Jews” were placed at the lowest level, as sub-humans portrayed as vermin and rats threatening to biologically and socially undermine and destroy German genetic superiority through interbreeding and social penetration of German society.
In the name of racial purity and protection, all those that the National Socialists classified as “Jews” had to be eliminated. Both German and Jew was defined and identified by pseudo-biological characteristics – the shape of one’s nose, the slope and size of one’s forehead or earlobes, the religion of one’s ancestors as indication of one’s genetic inheritance, and one’s attitude and allegiance and loyalty to the Nazi ideology.
Six million Jews, three million Poles, half a million Gypsies, over ten million Russians and Ukrainians and Byelorussians, were sacrificed at the altar of Nazi racial collectivism. Plus hundreds of thousands of others who fell under Nazi control during the war.
But neither were racially pure Germans exempt from the commanded sacrifice. As the Second World War was reaching its end in Europe in April 1945, Hitler said to Albert Speer, his favorite prewar architect and wartime Minister of Munitions, that if the Germans lost the war they will have failed their “fuhrer,” and had shown their racial inferiority in comparison to the victor to the East (the Russians); the German people will have forfeited their right to exist and should perish in the rubble and ashes of the aftermath of the war.
If Soviet collectivism is estimated to have required the sacrifice of upwards of 68 million lives to build the “bright future” of Marxian socialism, and if Nazi collectivism imposed the sacrifice of as many as 25 million lives in the name of pursuing a racially pure, German-dominated Europe, we continue to see the effects of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in our contemporary world today.
Islamic Collectivism and Faith-Based Sacrifice
The world has been seeing the return of violent religious fanaticism in the form of Islamic extremism. It has been captured in the imagery from the Middle East in the form of the Islamic State, though it is certainly not confined to this one variation of religious collectivism.
Are you Muslim or are you not? Do you follow the asserted correct reading of the Koran, or not? Are you willing to kill and die in pursuit of the earthly fulfillment of God’s will and purpose?
All non-believers are to be either converted or threatened with death in a multiple of cruel and brutal forms – thrown off a rooftop, beheaded on social media, burned alive in a cage, or shot in acts of mass execution with the victims thrown into rivers until the water runs red. Or forced into slavery for compulsory labor and/or sexual abuse.
And if you are a “believer” it has to be the right belief system of ideas, practices, and rituals within the Islamic faith, otherwise one is condemned to the same fate as the infidel, the non-believer.
The Islamic collectivism of religious sacrifice requires not only the non-believer to forfeit his life if he does not accept, believe and follow the “true” faith, the believer must rigidly limit his life to the practice and performance of all that is expected and demanded from a member of the community of Islam.
The individual has no right to live, act, or believe other than what the voices who claim to speak for God declare to be the path to righteousness in this life and after. The individual’s mind and body have no existence outside of the prescriptions of Islamic dogma; one is a human cog in the cosmic wheel of God’s purpose as God’s voices on earth dictate your place in the greater and higher cause of the “pure” faith.
In all of these variations on the collectivist theme, the individual is considered “selfish” or “egotistical” if he refuses to accept and act within the confines of the group identity that others conceptually impose on the world and to which he is demanded and commanded to conform under threat of punishment for refusing to sacrifice for a purpose or cause not of his own making or acceptance.
Individualism the Enemy of All Forms of Collectivism
This is why all forms of collectivism – philosophical, religious, political, or economic – reject and condemn all philosophies of political and economic individualism. Philosophical individualism argues that “society” – any formed and continued association of people for shared or mutually advantageous purposes – does not exist and does not have a reality independent of, or separate from, the individual human beings who comprise the participants in these associative relationships.
Political individualism insists that nations and states do not have an existence independent from or superior to the individuals who may be members of a particular nation-state. The purpose of the political authority is to secure and protect each individual’s right to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property (i.e., property acquired through peaceful production and voluntary exchange).
Government’s purpose is not to make the individual a slave or a sacrificial animal to some declared “higher cause,” because there are no higher causes separate from the purposes, values and goals that individuals choose for themselves and non-violently pursues through their actions and interactions with others.
Economic individualism emphasizes that production, work, and creative and innovative entrepreneurial discovery are the results of individual effort and imagination. The “nation,” the “society,” does not produce, work or create. Individual human beings do these things and they do not happen separate from these individual actions and activities.
Economic individualism explains that order and coordination of the actions of multitudes of tens of millions of people do not required government central command or regulatory dictation or direction. From the time of Adam Smith, economic individualists have shown that a system of individual rights, voluntary exchange, and associative interdependence through division of labor – what Adam Smith called a “system of natural liberty” – brings about self-interested incentives and opportunities for individuals to mutually improve their own lives through a network of trades and transactions that rebounds to the benefit of all, without the imposed and compulsory political hand of governmental control.
Philosophical, political and economic individualism, rightly understood, is the ethical and practical bulwark against collectivism and its demands for compulsory sacrifice for imaginary “higher goods” or “greater causes” that justify the denial or reduction of human freedom to the limits of what the collectivist controllers permit.
The philosophy of individualism is the foundation of a free society; it is the basis of a community of men that does not require or demand the sacrifice or enslavement of some for the one-sided benefits of others. Individualism is the premise of a morality for mankind that recognizes and respects the liberty and dignity of every human being. It is the ethical philosophy of freedom.
First published at EPICTiMes, and posted here with the kind permission of the author
Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB & T Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University. Was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (FFF).