The 'Supreme Rule' That Distinguishes Collectivism From Individualism

According to F.A. Hayek, the notion that objectives justify methods is one where the ethics of individualists and collectivists intersect.

Friedrich August von Hayek, an Austrian economist and political philosopher, was born on this day (May 8) in 1899 in Vienna and lived through virtually the entire twentieth century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 and passed away in 1992 at the age of 92.

The twentieth century was possibly the most collectivist since the Incan Empire of the sixteenth—a cruel irony given that Hayek delivered the world some of the most incisive critiques of the collectivist poison.

Hayek's thoughts on collectivism may be found across his various publications, but they are best represented in his famous 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom. On this 122nd anniversary of his birth, excerpts are provided as an homage to him. (I further encourage readers with a specific interest in this existential issue to review the list of literature I offer at the end of this article.)

Collectivism is a way of looking at human existence and behavior. It sees people as a blob in need of cohesive (if not unanimous) leadership. Individualism is its polar opposite since it views "humanity" as an idea made up of distinct people, each with his or her own thoughts and rights. While a collectivist would easily subsume the individual under concepts like majority vote or "the general will," an individualist is cautious of anybody or any organization claiming to speak for others without their agreement.

Hayek pointed out what should be evident but is sometimes overlooked: collective authority's "plans" are coerced into place at the expense of individuals' plans. That is, all varieties of socialism are ultimately collectivist, and all criticisms of collectivism apply to socialism in some way. Socialism inevitably employs collectivist language and, more crucially, seeks to attain its goals by collectivist means. Taken together, Hayek's and his mentor Ludwig von Mises' contributions form such a comprehensive and strong deconstruction of the socialist worldview that socialists' only effective answer has been to disregard them.

"Nearly all of the issues of contention between socialists and [classical, free market] liberals," Hayek argues, "concern the means common to all varieties of collectivism, rather than the specific purposes for which socialists wish to employ them..."

For example, practically everyone prefers abstract schooling. An individualist would promote a variety of techniques and institutions for obtaining it through personal choice and private entrepreneurship. A socialist believes in a communal approach—state schools, state curricula, authority requirements, and one-size-fits-all solutions. An individualist would never use command to homogenize schooling. He could even paraphrase Mao and truly mean it when he says, "Let a hundred flowers grow!" A collectivist, such as the communist Mao, would consider a hundred flowers blooming as nothing more than an excuse to chop them down to common, obedient stumps.

To a collectivist, leaving the flowers alone or allowing infinite variants of them is equivalent to having no design at all, according to Hayek. Individual plans are chaotic by definition, but centralized authority plans are somehow fundamentally reasonable. "What our planners require," Hayek writes, "is a central direction of all economic activity according to a single plan, laying forth how society's resources should be 'consciously directed' to fulfill specified objectives in a precise fashion."

This issue boils down to whether or not there will be competition. Individualism would respond with a resounding "YES!" since competition implies individual choice, responsibility, and a proclivity toward efficiency. It involves experimenting, with customers eventually determining which programs generate the greatest outcomes based on their free choices. In a competitive environment, the collectivist is inherently anti-competition since the strategy he prefers may not be the one chosen by others. Hayek defines a free and individualistic society,

…regards competition as superior not only because it is in most circumstances the most efficient method known but even more because it is the only method by which our activities can be adjusted to each other without coercive or arbitrary intervention of authority. Indeed, one of the main arguments in favor of competition is that it dispenses with the need for ‘conscious social control’ and that it gives the individuals a chance to decide whether the prospects of a particular occupation are sufficient to compensate for the disadvantages and risks connected to it.

Collectivist policymaking is unavoidably the pinnacle of hubris. It is not the judicious endeavor of an all-knowing, all-benevolent Wizard of Oz. As in the film, the "wizard" is shown to be nothing more than another mortal (or his lackeys) hiding behind the collective curtain, appearing to be smarter and bigger than the rest of us. Why should his plans be given priority over those of other humans? You might say, as collectivists do, that he represents the majority plus one, or that he has greater intentions, or whatever, but you can't deny that such statements are nothing more than arrogant presumptions. Collectivist planning is all about "might makes right."

Students are frequently taught that socialism and communism are "left of center" on the fictitious "political spectrum," whereas capitalism and fascism are "right of center." This is horrifyingly false, as I noted in a recent piece titled "The Only Spectrum That Makes Sense." Socialism, communism, and fascism are all collectivist peas in the same pod. Hayek was correct in his assessment that they all disliked both competition and the individual.

"The thought of total centralization of economic activity still horrifies most people," Hayek said, "not just because of the colossal difficulties of the job, but even more because of the fear produced by the idea of everything being directed from a single center."

Hayek delivers a knockout punch to collectivists in Chapter Ten of The Road to Serfdom ("Why the Worst Get to the Top"). Why? Because it is ultimately based on a moral argument:

The principle that the end justifies the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it becomes necessarily the supreme rule; there is literally nothing which the consistent collectivist must not be prepared to do if it serves ‘the good of the whole,’ because ‘the good of the whole' is to him the only criterion of what ought to be done. The raison d’etat, in which collectivist ethics has found its most explicit formulation, knows no other limit than that set by expediency—the suitability of the particular act for the end in view…There can be no limit to what [the collectivist state’s] citizen must be prepared to do, no act which his conscience must prevent him from committing, if it is necessary for an end which the community has set itself or which his superiors order him to achieve.

Friedrich August von Hayek was an intellectual titan. One does not have to be an academic to enjoy him. You just must be an individual who recognizes that we are all individuals and that only God is capable of planning the lives or economy of others.

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