Individualism vs Collectivism
I’m going to start with my conclusions and then fill in my thinking on the subject. My conclusion has to do with determining which is better, collectivism or individualism. It has been at the forefront of thought for some time now as the bitterly embattled election cycle revved up and has now finally died down for the moment.
Which is better collectivism or individualism? Do we want globalism or nationalism? And the answer I came up with is that it is somewhere in the middle. There is an appropriate place for collectivism and an appropriate place for individualism. There is an appropriate place in our thoughts for globalism and an appropriate place in our thoughts for nationalism.
We live in a world of duality. When we look at life as one pair of opposites after another, we see the dependence of one upon the other. I’ve spoken about this before. We cannot know love without the contrast of a vacancy of love such as with grief over the loss of a loved one. How would we know see darkness if there was no light to cast the shadow? It is the contrast that makes our life in this world a reality. It is the contrast that lets us know that we are alive.
We have the contrast of males and females. In humans, each of those expressions contributes a kind of energy that can be generalized. I’ve talked of this before and will continue to speak of the differences between men and women. The differences in how we think and feel and experience life on a daily basis. One is not greater than the other. Both are necessary for the continuation of the species. Men have certain traditional roles and woman have traditional roles. These roles evolved to ensure the continuation of the species.
In this particular discussion I’m going to bring up how the tendency for women to operate in groups relates to the concept of collectivism and the common independence of males relates to the concept of individualism.
Before I close today’s show I will briefly describe the founding of this country. I want to make note that we have already tried communism or collectivism without individualism in the early days of this country. It failed and we moved to an individual, incentive-based economic system that was a great success. It has continued to be a great success. It is one of the things that defines us as a nation. Since it is the time of year of Thanksgiving, it was an appropriate time to tell this story of the first Thanksgiving. And it’s not what you were taught in school.
While they are not the only original settlers, I’m going to specifically talk about the pilgrims as that is where the tradition of Thanksgiving originated. The pilgrims landed in 1620 and founded the colony of New Plymouth in what is now Massachusetts. They had a difficult first winter, but survived with the help of the Indians. Now known as the Native Americans. The usual story and history textbooks relates how in the fall of 1621 the grateful pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving day and invited the Indians to a big Thanksgiving day feast with Turkey and pumpkins.
There was indeed a big feast in 1621, but it was not a Thanksgiving Day. This three-day feast was described in a letter by the colonist Edward Winslow. It was a hunting party with the Indians, but there was no Thanksgiving Day proclamation, nor any mention of Thanksgiving in 1621 in any historical record.
The history of the colony was chronicled by Gov. William Bradford in his book, of Plymouth plantation. It is available at many libraries. Bradford relates how the pilgrims set up a communist system in which they owned the land in common and would also share the harvest in common. But by early 1623, it became clear the system was not working out well. The men were not eager to work in the fields. They worked only moderately hard as they would have to share their produce with everyone else. Since there was no individual recognition, there was no motivation to excel and produce an excess. As such, the colonists faced another year of poor harvests so they held a meeting to decide what to do.
As Gov. Bradford describes the meeting, “at last after much debate of things, the governor gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular. That had very good success for it made all hands very industrious, so much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.”
The pilgrims changed their economic system from communism to individual enterprise; the land was still owned in common and could not be sold or inherited, but each family was allotted a portion, and they could keep whatever they grew. The governor “assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end.”
Bradford wrote that their experience taught them that for a society as a whole, communism, or sharing all the production, was vain and a failure: “the experience that is had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanities of the conceit of Plato’s and other ancients, applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property, and bringing into Commonwealth, would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God.”
Their new incentive-based system was a great success. It looked like they would have an abundant harvest this time but then during the summer, the rain stopped threatening the crops. The pilgrims held a “day of humiliation” and prayer. The rains came and the harvest was saved. It is logical to surmise that the pilgrims saw this as a sign that God blessed their new economic system because Gov. Bradford proclaimed November 29, 1623 as a day of Thanksgiving.
This was the first proclamation of Thanksgiving found in Bradford’s Chronicles or any other historical record. The first Thanksgiving Day was therefore in November 1623.
The pilgrims recognized that the land itself would be their common community property, but that it is proper for the fruits of the labor of each person and family to belong to those who produce them. This was the great economics lesson about incentives that the pilgrims learned, a lesson that so impressed them that they commemorated it every year thereafter.
This bitter lesson of the failure of communism would be learned all over again by the people of the Soviet Union, Germany, Venezula and other economies where socialism and communism of production failed again and again.
Fortunately the pilgrims, a smaller community and simpler times, were able to switch quickly and realize the great prosperity that comes from applying the two principles of individual enterprise: sharing the benefits of land, and keeping what you individually earn.
Thanksgiving Day should be remembered not just as a day when we give thanks for our abundance, but more deeply and historically, why we have this abundance. It is the combined and balanced perspective of individual achievement for the benefit of the community that created this country.
The quote for today’s podcast comes from Ayn Rand: “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”