Collectivist Thinking Is Rife in the USA

The proclivity of some people to think in terms of collectivism, right here in these United States of American, is baffling to me. This is the country that was founded on the principle of individual rights-'everyone has them to, among other things, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The announcement of this, in the US Declaration, follows the teaching of the great classical liberals, especially John Locke, who developed the theory of natural individual rights after it has been lurking about in various local regions and in the minds of less systematic thinkers for centuries. Even the ancient Greeks, contrary to some academic opinion, had been aware of the idea, mentioned in Aristotle's Politics (as one he needed to counter as to defend his notion that the community must teach us virtues).

Now we get to the 21st Century and still there are many prominent and not so prominent minds wedded to the notion that the 'we' is superior to the 'I,' even though the 'we' is but various numbers of I. In human affairs, however, that isn't so'-we aren't grouped in the fashion of bee hives or termite and ant colonies. Our various communities and associations are only fitting if they may be joined or left without intimidation or coercion.

What this idea'-so well acknowledge about many matters related to America by millions around the globe who would rather live here than anywhere else precisely because they can call their own shots and do not have to conform to the group to which they 'belong''-precludes, without much ambiguity, is that when some people decided something for themselves, this isn't being imposed on others. If I like to wear orange shoes or shirts, nothing is force upon others by this peculiarity of mine. If I wish to imbibe every evening before I retire, there is nothing of this that constitutes an encroachment or imposition on others. If my friends and I want to play bridge on Sunday afternoons, millions of others can choose poker, or hiking or some spectator sport with which to bide their own time. There is no imposition afoot anywhere here.

This right to life, this right to liberty, and this right to pursue one's happiness is unabashedly individualistic, without in the slightest denying at the same time our thoroughly social nature. It's only that our social relations, while vital to us all, must be chosen-'that is what makes the crucial difference.

So then what are we to make of the following lament, voiced recently in my region relating to the gay marriage issue? 'Americans have one of two choices: They can have gay marriage shoved down their throats by an autocratic judiciary, or they can express their views to their representatives and with a constitutional amendment end this nonsense once and for all.'

Just look how bizarre this is: Sure, the Massachusetts Supreme Court affirmed the right of gays to get married. Did that shove anything down anyone's throat? Not by a long shot, no more so than a court's affirming the right to be free of enslavement or some other government imposed restriction shoves anything down anyone's throat.

Oddly enough, we hear this same lament from people opposed to free trade and globalization: governments entering free trade agreements are shoving things down people's throats around the globe. Balderdash'-that is the only time government's are doing something worthwhile and just, when they free up people, repeal bad old restrictions.

Certainly no one is forced to get married in a society that affirms the right to get married, nor is anyone forced to marry any gay person in a society that protects the rights of gays to marry. One can just go about one's own business and leave those folks to theirs. The idea that there is any kind of shoving down the throat going on is the bona fide nonsense, and a collectivist nonsense to boot.

It is poignant, by the way, that it was the Massachusetts Supreme Court, by way of Judge Lemuel Shaw's ruling in Commonwealth v. Hunt, a case involving labor relations, that affirmed that 'Associations may be entered into . . . and the legality of such associations will . . . depend upon the means to be used for its accomplishment.' If those means are free of coercion, then they are legal.

And this ruling was made-'in 1842!

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.