The Fallacy of Collectives : What Common Good ?

We hear a lot of rhetoric about “society”, “culture”, and “the common good”. We are often asked by politicians and journalists to surrender our freedom for these things. But one rarely stops to ask oneself what it is exactly we are surrendering to. The notion of a society existing as an independent entity is, to say the least, problematic. How may we understand the problem ? And more importantly, how can we understand group dynamics from a rational viewpoint, and how does it apply to politics ?

Aggregates in action

We must start by asking what it is we are examining. It is obvious that “society”, for example, is not a unitary entity. One cannot point to society, only to individuals. That much is given to us by direct perception.

Therefore what is “society” ? Society is an aggregate of individuals. Therefore the attributes of society are dependant on the attributes of its composing individuals. One must of course not be careful to commit the fallacy of composition : the attributes are not necessarily directly dependant. For instance, take the classical example of the wall. If all the bricks are yellow, then the wall will be yellow, but if the bricks are five inches high, the wall is not necessarily five inches tall, since height is an additive property. So while it is important to remember that the attributes of the aggregate “society” are all dependant on individual attributes, we must be careful not to think that the attributes are directly dependant.

But this definition is incomplete. What makes an individual part of a given society, or to speak generally, a unit part of an aggregate ? The answer, in short, is relationship. That is, all the units of an aggregate have as similarity their relationship to a concept, such as physical proximity and nature. We say that individual Canadians are part of Canada and the Canadian society because they have a Canadian citizenship. This criteria is not directly given to us either, but quite human : citizenship depends on staying within certain geopolitical lines drawn abstractly and corresponding to certain politically-determined criteria. The criteria for being part of an aggregate need not be obvious, and is purely relative.

Take a simpler example, which will also illustrate the dependancy of attributes. Take a class where people are located – a group of students. Individuals are part of the group because they are seated inside the room where the class is given (note that for a teacher, people not officially following the class may not be part of the group – as mentioned, the criteria is relative). If most individuals leave the room, someone coming in would properly say that “the group has left”, even though not all individuals have left.

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Perhaps I should emphasize on this point, because it is crucial and easy to misunderstand. I do not mean that societies do not exist as such, but that they do not exist as independant entities apart from their constituents. Just as a pile of rocks exists as an aggregate of rocks, and not as an independant entity.

How therefore may we interpret group dynamics ? For example, what does it mean to say that the “United States has done so and so” ? We mean by this that some politicians in power have decided to implement a given policy. It is shorthand and means, strictly speaking, very little – it is relative to the context in question and the system appraised. For example, in the case of a government, people usually vote for politicians thru democratic systems, and therefore we may discuss their level of responsability towards one measure or another.

It’s easy to obscure an issue with collective terms. For example, take the sentence “The US has declared war on Afghanistan”. Is this true in the strict sense ? Of course not. Some people in the US do not support the war. But enough politicians and soldiers did. The collective term is used to obscure the reality and bring the illusion of unity. If I would have said “All Americans have declared war on Afghanistan”, then you would see it for the absurdity that it is.

The harmony of rational interest ensures that the greatest good can only be achieved within an individualist concept : notions of “society”, “culture” or “race” only serve to muddle this fact.

The Anti-Social Contract

Policies based on collective entities are not correct answers. Aggregate terms such as “common good” are used as excuses to persuade. In reality, no one benefits from global sacrifice – there is no “society” entity to which these sacrifices benefit, but there are politicians that fatten their wallets thanks to these sacrifices. When any politician or activist proposes a solution based on a collective entity, one should ask “how does he benefit ?”.

Now, societal problems do exist. The only point highlighted here is that to pretend to find a solution to “societal problems” by using collectivist ideas is misguided at best. The first question is, is this really a problem, and for whom ? If there is a problem, then what is its direct cause ? What natural laws, or individual perception, or particular class of motivations provide the context for this cause ?

The collectivist answer to societal problems is usually thoughtless and refuses to ask any such intelligent questions – it usually consists of sacrificing freedom of private citizens, ostensibly in the name of a collective entity but really to fatten a politician’s wallet and vote power. Criminality problem ? Instead of examining socio-economical conditions or whenever public schools really teach children to be good, let’s just beef up the police force and pass more laws. Racism problem ? Instead of examining the educational and political sources of racism, just censor them and pass more laws against businesses’ right of association. And so on.

“Society” is not the only construct which is used for political reasons. Another much vaunted aggregate is “culture”. A “culture” is basically the sum of values, traditions, art, and other particularities of a society compared to others. This in itself is not problematic. It is when culture is used as an existant, to justify racism or epistemic determinism that we have a problem. An analogy could be made with another collective entity like race : it is not because one is part of a race or culture that he follows its most saliant attributes. Likewise, when a grave crime committed a minority is publicized, we often assist to the horrible and burlesque demand of “speaking for one’s community”.

Such things have no place in a civilized and individualist society. The harmony of rational interest ensures that the greatest good can only be achieved within an individualist concept : notions of “society”, “culture” or “race” only serve to muddle this fact.

The ultimate absurd expression of collectivism in our society is the notion of the “Social Contract”. The basic reasoning behind the surrender of our freedom to this fictional Contract is :

1. We are all dependant on each other.
2. Therefore, we are all indebted to each other.
3. Therefore, the government must, in the name of society, take away our freedoms when necessar in order to pay back this debt.

Such a reasoning is based on ignorance. While it is true that we are all dependant on each other one way or another, individual freedom is the optimal way to make this dependance productive, as Objectivist politics demonstrates. Only if we accept a construct “society” to which we contract a debt may we find this argument valid. Of course, one may also question how we can call it a “contract” when only one party (the citizenry) gives without even being given the choice of agreeing with the contract or not, and the other (government) gets by force. That’s theft, not any kind of contract. It’s a completely unreal situation.

In philosophical terms, we may see the situation in Peikoff‘s terms of “the one” and “the many”. Collectivism and aggregates are a prime example of “the many without the one” – that is, talking in global terms while forgetting the units that motivate them. It is usually accepted that the reverse to this is “the one” – that is, anarchy, the lack of concern for others and individual rights. Libertarianism, on the other hand, rejects this false dichotomy and acknowledges that we are all “one in the many” – that it is the harmony of interests in a free society that creates a good and just society. The question is not : “are you only in it for yourself, or for all ?”, because there is no “all” – but rather : “are you for, or against, the good of each of us ?”.