Individualism vs Collectivism – Let’s decide our own destiny

The long history of economic and social difficulties with which Jamaica struggles to solve requires intense study. These problems have stymied all efforts to reduce crime and improve the economy to increase opportunities for the citizens. It is therefore necessary to peel beneath multiple layers of obvious symptoms to examine the core ideological attitudes that contribute to a society plagued by continued deterioration and chaos in both the public and private sectors.

Continuous failure requires drastically new methodologies that should go beyond noble feel good efforts. These efforts over the decades have always appeared geared towards reducing poverty, illiteracy and unemployment mostly towards a socially engineered egalitarian society. While no one would disagree with the improving opportunities through education, it is the ultimate goal of equality that confounds these programs to failure.

It is the basic ideology of the country that requires reprogramming towards successfully empowering individuals to improve their lives through responsible choices. Towards this end, responsible choices are best made when a person has a sense of self reliance and a willingness to take risks. This must extend beyond the usual civil freedoms, such as speech and religion. Economic freedom is the ultimate emancipator of persons.

“It is difficult to imagine that Bob Marley did not fully understand the importance of having that freedom to make choices and to live with the consequences.” A brief look at successful countries will confirm that economic empowerment of individuals would be best achieved through the process of individualization. This is a process whereby people see their lives as a series of options within their own control. Plainly, people take ownership of their own destiny. The supporting argument for individuality to become the fabric of a successful society is not new. It has been the guiding principle for the drafters of the United States constitution, that living document which guarantees liberty and freedom for Americans. In fact, freedom of choice in determining ones future can be traced back to the bible. Somewhere within the scriptures is a verse that speaks to the responsibility of an individual, which simply says a person shall reap what they sow. This instruction, if taken as such was not a collective responsibility, but rather one of personal responsibility.

The great reggae music icon Bob Marley spoke of this ability and desire to chart ones future. His lyrics spoke of every man deciding “his own destiny”. It is difficult to imagine that Bob Marley did not fully understand the importance of having that freedom to make choices and to live with the consequences. However, individualism is often criticized as being myopic and selfish. F. A. Hayek wrote in his book, The Road to Serfdom, that “Individualism has a bad name today and the term has come to be connected with egotism and selfishness.”

My own experiences have confirmed this previous observation by Hayek to be accurate. This I would attribute mostly to a lack of understanding on the part of many who surrender to various forms of collectivism. Those who are afraid to embrace individualism should be made to understand that the concept does not preclude any moral responsibilities to our families and neighbors nor does it promote disregard for our communities. The difference is the absence of compulsion to coercively accept by law those responsibilities that we would rather not do. Rather than being uncooperative, individualism requires cooperation as a necessity.

Jamaica has long been a society steeped in collectivism. Throughout slavery and colonialism, the country has cultivated strong dependence on customs, traditions, religious and political bonds. It is the vestiges of collectivist ideals that today form the tenets of Jamaican society in its constitution and government. This was further intensified with the introduction of democratic socialism in the volatile 1970s. While Jamaica has a long tradition of democracy, collectivist doctrines influence its formulation of public policy. This has resulted in declining productivity, inefficiency, corruption and an unfriendly business environment.

Although current and past government administrations have taken steps to liberalize the economy, though divestments of commercial interests, they have not done enough to allow for a more meaningful ideological change towards constitutional protections for the individual and by extension private property. The government also has not yet implemented reforms to decentralize government towards promoting autonomy at the local government level. Neither does it appear ready to divide the bureaucracy into separate independent branches accountable to the others. These complications all contribute to the country’s economic and social difficulties.

As the government attempts to be balance competing demands for resources, it is forced to be the purveyor of all the country’s solutions and leaves little room for the private sector. The end result of government driven solutions is that the society becomes increasingly dependent, while inventions, entrepreneurship and innovations become blighted.

Although most Jamaicans would probably describe themselves as wanting to have control over their lives and having personal obligations only to themselves and family, I would challenge this assertion. Mainly this is because such a great majority looks to government for most of their solutions.

Proponents of collectivism relish the idea of the state being the mechanism most favored to find proper solutions to all problems. Decision making is often done by a group which is often regarded as enlightened, which supersedes the individual, who is not seen as properly equipped to make personal choices.

The group is regarded as the fundamental unit of political, social and economic concern whose decisions are for the greater good of society. This idealist viewpoint is that which defines totalitarian political systems such as socialism, communism and fascism. It is for this reason that individuals are said to have no right and that labor belongs to the state in countries such as Cuba where socialism remains intact.

On the surface collectivism appears to be morally superior to individualism because it takes into account the human needs. This moral appeal has allowed leaders such as Hitler and others to ride these sentiments to a position of power. Denial of human rights is common in societies where collectivism is practiced. In China for example, the state has imposed limitations on how many children a family may have. This decision is not left up to families to take personal responsibility and face consequences.

Jamaica has seen its share of human rights abuses from the state security forces with extrajudicial killings. This propensity for abuse has also taken root in the society whereby suspected homosexuals and petty criminals are killed by mobs.

Individualism tends to be more favorable for those who value freedom of choice and personal responsibility. So while the collectivist may find content with the state control, individualists would rather take chances in a system where personal and economic freedoms take precedence. The free market system is built around this idea of individual rights and freedom. These rights are seen as inalienable and cannot be superseded by the state.

Individualism can only become more entrenched in the Jamaican psyche if there are meaningful reforms to strengthen the Jamaican constitution and institutions to protect and promote greater rights and appreciation for the human individual. The result will be more dynamic entrepreneurs, research scientists and others, who, through personal development, add increased value to themselves and the overall growth and progress of the country. Egalitarianism will not be achieved; some will be prosperous while others make unwise decisions, but it is counterproductive to use public policy to punish those who are richly rewarded.

Although these are historically polarizing viewpoints, they remain relevant in any attempts to find effective solutions to social and economic problems today. For while both collectivists and individualists desire to achieve similar results, it is the path towards those ends that result in disagreements. Individualism though not guaranteeing individual success has proven to be a better path towards promoting and rewarding social and economic cooperation.

Vinton Grant is a freelance writer in Maryland, USA

 

     

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