Individualism and Collectivism Aren’t Polar Opposites

My buddy Ben wrote recently: “Last night, at my favorite cafe in San Francisco, I said to a friend that Obama’s speech at Wesleyan kind of made me squirm.”

He felt that Obama’s words implied a collectivist (read: socialist) mindset that subordinated the individual to the group, and indicated a disdain for the invisible hand of capitalism.

I don’t hear anything in Obama’s speech that is anti-capitalist or anti-individual (and given that I write “Adventures in Capitalism,” I like to think that I’m sensitive to these issues).

Here’s the offending passage from Obama’s speech:
“Now, each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say “chance” because, as President Roth indicated, you won’t have to take it. There’s no community service requirement in the outside world; no one’s forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.

But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although I believe you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get to where you are today, although I do believe you have that debt to pay.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role that you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in the American story.”

1) While I am a big believer in profit and the individual hand, it is the case that science consistently shows that the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness are two very different goals, and that the rampant materialism of our country has a corrosive effect on our character.

Note that Obama is not trying to fix the problem with punitive taxes or by mandating service; rather he is trying to persuade people to make a voluntary choice.

2) It is also true that positive psychology shows that humans generally crave a sense of transcendance and connectedness. This is one of the major reasons that religion exists, as well as sports and other affinity groupings.

Seligman writes about the tyranny of individualism. We are all individuals, and our freedom of choice should be sacrosanct. But people should be encouraged to recognize that living simply for ourselves is most likely a recipe for an unhappy and unfulfilling life.

2 thoughts on “Individualism and Collectivism Aren’t Polar Opposites

  1. Collectivism is, strictly speaking, participation in a collective which is not optional. Right?

    I mean, a kibbutz is a collective, but they don’t shoot you if you try to leave. AA is a collective, but you are free to come and go as you choose. Collectivism, though, involves the subjugation of the individual for the sake of the collective, with limited or no choice for the individual. Using the AA example, my participation in that – in the form of serving others – also benefits me hugely. Enlightened self-interest is the way to go.

    I understand Ben’s discomfort, because too few people are aware of these distinctions. Which is how you lead to so much of the population favoring compulsory community service for teens and other dangerous ideas.

  2. Anonymous

    Note that Obama is not trying to fix the problem with punitive taxes or by mandating service; rather he is trying to persuade people to make a voluntary choice.

    Not in this speech, at least. In many others, he’s not shy about telling his audience that he will try to implement punitive taxes that are involuntary. The mandating service angle comes into play when you have to work more to pay your share of the wealth distribution that Obama dreams about. He’s not transparent about his socialism, at all.


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