Frederick Douglass

Note: This essay is included in the anthology Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing, which makes an excellent gift and is available at

The fundamental political conflict in America today is, as it has been for a century, individualism vs. collectivism. Does the individual’s life belong to him—or does it belong to the group, the community, society, or the state? With government expanding ever more rapidly—seizing and spending more and more of our money on “entitlement” programs and corporate bailouts, and intruding on our businesses and lives in increasingly onerous ways—the need for clarity on this issue has never been greater. Let us begin by defining the terms at hand.

Individualism is the idea that the individual’s life belongs to him and that he has an inalienable right to live it as he sees fit, to act on his own judgment, to keep and use the product of his effort, and to pursue the values of his choosing. It’s the idea that the individual is sovereign, an end in himself, and the fundamental unit of moral concern. This is the ideal that the American Founders set forth and sought to establish when they drafted the Declaration and the Constitution and created a country in which the individual’s rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness were to be recognized and protected.

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Collectivism is the idea that the individual’s life belongs not to him but to the group or society of which he is merely a part, that he has no rights, and that he must sacrifice his values and goals for the group’s “greater good.” According to collectivism, the group or society is the basic unit of moral concern, and the individual is of value only insofar as he serves the group. As one advocate of this idea puts it: “Man has no rights except those which society permits him to enjoy. From the day of his birth until the day of his death society allows him to enjoy certain so-called rights and deprives him of others; not . . . because society desires especially to favor or oppress the individual, but because its own preservation, welfare, and happiness are the prime considerations.”1

Individualism or collectivism—which of these ideas is correct? Which has the facts on its side? . . .


1 A. Maurice Low, “What is Socialism? III: An Explanation of ‘The Rights’ Men Enjoy in a State of Civilized Society,” The North American Review, vol. 197, no. 688 (March 1913), p. 406.

2 Letter to Thomas Auld, September 3, 1848, in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999). Also available online at

3 John Dewey, “The Ethics of Democracy,” in The Early Works of John Dewey, Volume 1, 18821898: Early Essays and Leibniz’s New Essays, 18821888, edited by Jo Ann Boydston and George E. Axetell (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), p. 232.

4 The roots of this idea can be found in Plato’s The Republic.

5 Cf. Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff (New York: Penguin, 1990), p. 35.

6 Helen E. Longino, “Knowledge in Social Theories of Science,” in Socializing Epistemology: The Social Dimensions of Knowledge, edited by Frederick F. Schmitt (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), pp. 139, 142–43.

7 Low, “What is Socialism? III,” pp. 405–6.

8 Ayn Rand, “Textbook of Americanism,” in The Ayn Rand Column (New Milford, CT: Second Renaissance Books, 1998), p. 90.

9 David Callahan, “The Biggest Idea in Obama’s Speech: A Common Good,” The Demos Weblog, January 26, 2012,

10 Michael Tomasky, “Party in Search of a Notion,” The American Prospect, April 18, 2006. Available online at

11 Barack Obama, Keynote Address, Sojourners/Call to Renewal-sponsored Pentecost conference, June 2006,; Penny Starr, “Obama Calls Health Care a ‘Moral Obligation,’ But Pro-lifers Say Tax Money for Abortions Is ‘Moral’ Issue,” August 21, 2009,; Obama, Commencement Speech at Wesleyan University, 2008,

12 Hank De Zutter, “What Makes Obama Run?,” Chicago Reader, December 7, 1995. Available online at

13 Rick Santorum, It Takes a Family (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005), pp. 14–15.

14 Jonathan Rauch, “A Frothy Mixture of Collectivism and Conservatism: America’s Anti-Reagan Isn’t Hillary Clinton. It’s Rick Santorum,” Reason Magazine, September 6, 2005. Available online at

15 Ayn Rand, “The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion,’” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 269.

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