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1. THE ORIGIN AND NATURE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The first of these has to do with the nature of human rights. Collectivists and
individualists both agree that human rights are important, but they differ over how important
compared to other values and especially over the origin of those rights.
Rights are not tangible entities that can be viewed or measured. They are abstract
concepts held in the human mind. They are whatever men agree they are at a given time and
place. Their nature has changed with the evolution of civilization. Today, they vary widely
from culture to culture. One culture may accept that rights are granted by rulers who derive
authority from God. Another culture may claim that rights are granted by God directly to the
people. In other cultures, rights are perceived as a claim to the material possessions of
others. People living in tribal or military dictatorships don’t spend much time even thinking
about rights because they have no expectation of ever having them. Some primitive cultures
don’t even have a word for rights.
Because of the great diversity in the concept of human rights, they cannot be defined
to everyone’s satisfaction. However, that does not mean they cannot be defined to our
satisfaction. We do not have to insist that those in other cultures agree with us; but, if we
wish to live in a culture to our liking, one in which we have the optimum amount of
personal freedom, then we must be serious about a preferred definition of human rights. If
we have no concept of what rights should be, then it is likely we will live under a definition
not to our liking.
The first thing to understand as we work toward a useful definition of rights is that
their source determines their nature. This will be covered in greater detail further along, but
the concept needs to be stated here. If we can agree on the source of rights, then we will
have little difficulty agreeing on their nature. For example, if a security guard is hired by a
gated community to protect the property of its residents, the nature of the guard’s activity
must be limited to the activities that the residents themselves are entitled to perform. That
means the guard may patrol the community and, if necessary, physically deter burglaries
and crimes of aggressive violence. But the guard is not authorized to compel the residents to
send their children to bed by 10 PM or donate to the Red Cross. Why not? Because the
residents are the source of the authority; the nature of the authority cannot include any act
that is denied to the source; and the residents have no right to compel their neighbors in
RIGHTS ARE BORN ON THE BATTLEFIELD
In societies that have been sheltered for many generations from war and revolution, it
is easy to forget that rights are derived from military power. That is their ultimate source.
Initially, rights must be earned on the battlefield. They may be handed to the next generation
as a gift, but they always are purchased on the battlefield. The Bill of Rights of the United
States Constitution is a classic example. The men who drafted that document were able to
do so only because they represented the colonists who defeated the armies of Great Britain.
Had they lost the War of Independence, they would have had no opportunity to write a Bill
of Rights or anything else except letters of farewell before their execution.
Unfortunately, Mao Zedong was right when he said that political power grows from
the barrel of a gun. He could just as well have said rights. A man may declare that he has a
right to do such and such derived from law or from a constitution or even from God; but, in
the presence of an enemy or a criminal or a tyrant with a gun to his head, he has no power to
exercise his proclaimed right. Rights are always based on power. If we lose our ability or
willingness to physically defend our rights, we will lose them.
Now we come to the chasm between collectivists and individualists. If rights are
earned on the battlefield, we may assume they belong to the winners, but who are they? Do
governments win wars or do the people? If governments win wars and people merely serve
them as in medieval times, then governments hold the rights and are entitled to grant or
deny them to the people. On the other hand, if people win wars and governments merely
serve them in this matter, then the people hold rights and are entitled to grant or deny them
to governments. If our task is to define rights as we think they should be in a free society,
we must choose between these two concepts. Individualists choose the concept that rights
come from the people and governments are the servants. Collectivists choose the concept
that rights come from governments and people are the servants. Individualists are nervous
about that assumption because, if the state has the power to grant rights, it also has the
power to take them away, and that concept is incompatible with personal liberty.
The view of individualism was expressed clearly in the United States Declaration of
Independence, which says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these
are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights,
Governments are instituted among men....
Nothing could be clearer than that. The dictionary tells us that inalienable (spelled
differently in colonial times) means “not to be transferred to another.” The assumption is
that rights are the innate possession of the people. The purpose of government is, not to
grant rights, but to secure them and protect them.
By contrast, all collectivist political systems embrace the opposite view that rights
are granted by the state. That includes the Nazis, Fascists, and Communists. It is also a tenet
of the United Nations. Article Four of the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, in the enjoyment of
those rights provided by the State ... the State may subject such rights only to such
limitations as are determined by law.
I repeat: If we accept that the state has the power to grant rights, then we must also
agree it has the power to take them away. Notice the wording of the UN Covenant. After
proclaiming that rights are provided by the state, it then says that those rights may be subject
to limitations “as are determined by law.” In other words, the collectivists at the UN
presume to grant us our rights and, when they are ready to take them away, all they have to
do is pass a law authorizing it.
Compare that with the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. It says
Congress shall make no law restricting the rights of freedom of speech, or religion, peaceful
assembly, the right to bear arms, and so forth – not except as determined by law, but no law.
The Constitution embodies the ethic of individualism. The UN embodies the ethic of
collectivism, and what a difference that makes.
2. THE ORIGIN OF STATE POWER
The second concept that divides collectivism from individualism has to do with the
origin of state power. As stated previously, individualists believe that a just government
derives its power, not from conquest and subjugation, but from the people. That means the
state cannot have any legitimate powers unless they are given to it by its citizens. Another
way of putting it is that governments may do only those things that their citizens also have a
right to do. If individuals don’t have the right to perform a certain act, then they can’t grant
that power to their elected representatives. They can’t delegate what they don’t have. It
makes no matter how many of them there may be. If none of them have a specified power to
delegate, then a million of them don’t have it either.
Let us use an extreme example. Let us assume that a ship has been sunk in a storm,
and three exhausted men are struggling for survival in the sea. Suddenly, they come upon a
life-buoy ring. The ring is designed only to keep one person afloat; but, with careful
cooperation between them, it can keep two of them afloat. However, when the third man
grasps the ring, it becomes useless, and all three, once again, are at the mercy of the sea.
They try taking turns: one treading while two hold on to the ring; but after a few hours, none
of them have strength to continue. The grim truth gradually becomes clear. Unless one of
them is cut loose from the group, all three will drown. What, then, should these men do?
Most people would say that two of the men would be justified in overpowering the
third and casting him off. The right of self-survival is paramount. Taking the life of another,
terrible as such an act would be, is morally justified if it is necessary to save your own life.
That certainly is true for individual action, but what about collective action? Where do two
men get the right to gang up on one man?
The collectivist answers that two men have a greater right to life because they
outnumber the third one. It’s a question of mathematics: The greatest good for the greatest
number. That makes the group more important than the individual and it justifies two men
forcing one man away from the ring. There is a certain logic to this argument but, if we
further simplify the example, we will see that, although the action may be correct, it is
justified by the wrong reasoning.
Let us assume, now, that there are only two survivors – so we eliminate the concept
of the group – and let us also assume that the ring will support only one swimmer, not two.
Under these conditions, it would be similar to facing an enemy in battle. You must kill or be
killed. Only one can survive. We are dealing now with the competing right of self-survival
for each individual, and there is no mythological group to confuse the issue. Under this
extreme condition, it is clear that each person would have the right to do whatever he can to
preserve his own life, even if it leads to the death of another. Some may argue that it would
be better to sacrifice one’s life for a stranger, but few would argue that not to do so would be
wrong. So, when the conditions are simplified to their barest essentials, we see that the right
to deny life to others comes from the individual’s right to protect his own life. It does not
need the so-called group to ordain it.
In the original case of three survivors, the justification for denying life to one of them
does not come from a majority vote but from their individual and separate right of self-
survival. In other words, either of them, acting alone, would be justified in this action. They
are not empowered by the group. When we hire police to protect our community, we are
merely asking them to do what we, ourselves, have a right to do. Using physical force to
protect our lives, liberty, and property is a legitimate function of government, because that
power is derived from the people as individuals. It does not arise from the group.1
Here’s one more example – a lot less extreme but far more typical of what actually
goes on every day in legislative bodies. If government officials decide one day that no one
should work on Sunday, and even assuming the community generally supports their
decision, where would they get the authority to use the police power of the state to enforce
such a decree? Individual citizens don’t have the right to compel their neighbors not to
work, so they can’t delegate that right to their government. Where, then, would the state get
the authority? The answer is that it would come from itself; it would be self-generated. It
would be similar to the divine right of ancient monarchies in which it was assumed that
governments represent the power and the will of God. In more modern times, most
governments don’t even pretend to have God as their authority, they just rely on swat teams
and armies, and anyone who objects is eliminated.
When governments claim to derive their authority from any source other than the
governed, it always leads to the destruction of liberty. Preventing men from working on
Sunday would not seem to be a great threat to freedom, but once the principle is established,
it opens the door for more edicts, and more, and more until freedom is gone. If we accept
that the state or any group has the right to do things that individuals alone do not have the
right to do, then we have unwittingly endorsed the concept that rights are not intrinsic to the
individual and that they, in fact, do originate with the state. Once we accept that, we are on
the road to tyranny.
Collectivists are not concerned over such picky issues. They believe that
governments do, in fact, have powers that are greater than those of their citizens, and the
source of those powers, they say, is, not the individuals within society, but society itself, the
group to which individuals belong.
3. GROUP SUPREMACY
This is the third concept that divides collectivism from individualism. Collectivism is
based on the belief that the group is more important than the individual. According to this
view, the group is an entity of its own and it has rights of its own. Furthermore, those rights
are more important than individual rights. Therefore, it is acceptable to sacrifice individuals
if necessary for “the greater good of the greater number.” How many times have we heard
that? Who can object to the loss of liberty if it is justified as necessary for the greater good
of society? The ultimate group, of course, is the state. Therefore, the state is more important
than individual citizens, and it is acceptable to sacrifice individuals, if necessary, for the
benefit of the state. This concept is at the heart of all modern totalitarian systems built on the
model of collectivism.
Individualists on the other hand say, “Wait a minute. Group? What is group? That’s
just a word. You can’t touch a group. You can’t see a group. All you can touch and see are
individuals. The word group is an abstraction and doesn’t exist as a tangible reality. It’s like
the abstraction called forest. Forest doesn’t exist. Only trees exist. Forest is the concept of
many trees. Likewise, the word group merely describes the abstract concept of many
individuals. Only individuals are real and, therefore, there is no such thing as group rights.
Only individuals have rights.
Just because there are many individuals in one group and only a few in another does
not give a higher priority to the individuals in the larger group – even if you call it the state.
A majority of voters do not have more rights than the minority. Rights are not derived from
the power of numbers. They do not come from the group. They are intrinsic with each
When someone argues that individuals must be sacrificed for the greater good of
society, what they are really saying is that some individuals are to be sacrificed for the
greater good of other individuals. The morality of collectivism is based on numbers.
Anything may be done so long as the number of people benefiting supposedly is greater
than the number of people being sacrificed. I say supposedly, because, in the real world,
those who decide who is to be sacrificed don’t count fairly. Dictators always claim they
represent the greater good of the greater number but, in reality, they and their support
organizations usually comprise less than one percent of the population. The theory is that
someone has to speak for the masses and represent their best interest, because they are too
dumb to figure it out for themselves. So collectivist leaders, wise and virtuous as they are,
make the decisions for them. It is possible to explain any atrocity or injustice as a necessary
measure for the greater good of society. Modern totalitarians always parade as
Because individualists do not accept group supremacy, collectivists often portray
them as being selfish and insensitive to the needs of others. That theme is common in
schools today. If a child is not willing to go along with the group, he is criticized as being
socially disruptive and not a good “team player” or a good citizen. Those nice folks at the
tax-exempt foundations had a lot to do with that. But individualism is not based on ego. It is
based on principle. If you accept the premise that individuals may be sacrificed for the
group, you have made a huge mistake on two counts. First, individuals are the essence of the
group, which means the group is being sacrificed anyway, piece by piece. Secondly, the
underlying principle is deadly. Today, the individual being sacrificed may be unknown to
you or even someone you dislike. Tomorrow, it could be you. It takes but a moment’s
reflection to realize that the greater good for the greater number is not achieved by
sacrificing individuals but by protecting individuals. In reality, the greater good for the
greater number is best served by individualism, not collectivism.
REPUBLICS VS DEMOCRACIES
We are dealing here with one of the reasons people make a distinction between
republics and democracies. In recent years, we have been taught to believe that a democracy
is the ideal form of government. Supposedly, that is what was created by the American
Constitution. But, if you read the documents and the speech transcripts of the men who
wrote the Constitution, you find that they spoke very poorly of democracy. They said in
plain words that a democracy was one of the worst possible forms of government. And so
they created what they called a republic. That is why the word democracy doesn’t appear
anywhere in the Constitution; and, when Americans pledge allegiance to the flag, it’s to the
republic for which it stands, not the democracy. When Colonel Davy Crockett joined the
Texas Revolution prior to the famous Battle of the Alamo, he refused to sign the oath of
allegiance to the future government of Texas until the wording was changed to the future
republican government of Texas.1 The reason this is important is that the difference between
a democracy and a republic is the difference between collectivism and individualism.
In a pure democracy, the majority rules; end of discussion. You might say, “What’s
wrong with that?” Well, there could be plenty wrong with that. What about a lynch mob?
There is only one person with a dissenting vote, and he is the guy at the end of the rope.
That’s pure democracy in action.
“Ah, wait a minute,” you say. “The majority should rule. Yes, but not to the extent of
denying the rights of the minority,” and, of course, you would be correct. That is precisely
what a republic accomplishes. A republic is a government based on the principle of limited
majority rule so that the minority – even a minority of one – will be protected from the
whims and passions of the majority. Republics are often characterized by written
constitutions that spell out the rules to make that possible. That was the function of the
American Bill of Rights, which is nothing more than a list of things the government may not
do. It says that Congress, even though it represents the majority, shall pass no law denying
the minority their rights to free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, peaceful assembly,
the right to bear arms, and other “unalienable” rights.
These limitations on majority rule are the essence of a republic, and they also are at
the core of the ideology called individualism. And so here is another major difference
between these two concepts: collectivism on the one hand, supporting any government
action so long as it can be said to be for the greater good of the greater number; and
individualism on the other hand, defending the rights of the minority against the passions
and greed of the majority.
4. COERCION VS FREEDOM
The fourth concept that divides collectivism from individualism has to do with
responsibilities and freedom of choice. We have spoken about the origin of rights, but there
is a similar issue involving the origin of responsibilities. Rights and responsibilities go
together. If you value the right to live your own life without others telling you what to do,
then you must assume the responsibility to be independent, to provide for yourself without
expecting others to take care of you. Rights and responsibilities are merely different sides of
the same coin.
If only individuals have rights, then it follows that only individuals have
responsibilities. If groups have rights, then groups also have responsibilities; and, therein,
lies one of the greatest ideological challenges of our modern age.
Individualists are champions of individual rights. Therefore, they accept the principle
of individual responsibility rather than group responsibility. They believe that everyone has
a personal and direct obligation to provide, first for himself and his family, and then for
others who may be in need. That does not mean they don’t believe in helping each other.
Just because I am an individualist does not mean I have to move my piano alone. It just
means that I believe that moving it is my responsibility, not someone else’s, and it’s up to
me to organize the voluntary assistance of others.
The collectivist, on the other hand, declares that individuals are not personally
responsible for charity, for raising their own children, providing for aging parents, or even
providing for themselves. These are group obligations of the state. The individualist expects
to do it himself; the collectivist wants the government to do it for him: to provide
employment and health care, a minimum wage, food, education, and a decent place to live.
Collectivists are enamored by government. They worship government. They have a fixation
on government as the ultimate group mechanism to solve all problems.
Individualists do not share that faith. They see government as the creator of more
problems than it solves. They believe that freedom of choice will lead to the best solution of
social and economic problems. Millions of ideas and efforts, each subject to trial and error
and competition – in which the best solution becomes obvious by comparing its results to all
others – that process will produce results that are far superior to what can be achieved by a
group of politicians or a committee of so-called wise men.
By contrast, collectivists do not trust freedom. They are afraid of freedom. They are
convinced that freedom may be all right in small matters such as what color socks you want
to wear, but when it come to the important issues such as the money supply, banking
practices, investments, insurance programs, health care, education, and so on, freedom will
not work. These things, they say, simply must be controlled by the government. Otherwise
there would be chaos.
There are two reasons for the popularity of that concept. One is that most of us have
been educated in government schools, and that’s what we were taught. The other reason is
that government is the one group that can legally force everyone to participate. It has the
power of taxation, backed by jails and force of arms to compel everyone to fall in line, and
that is a very appealing concept to the intellectual who pictures himself as a social engineer.
Collectivists say, “We must force people to do what we think they should do, because
they are too dumb to do it on their own. We, on the other hand, have been to school. We’ve
read books. We are informed. We are smarter than those people out there. If we leave it to
them, they are going to make terrible mistakes. So, it is up to us, the enlightened ones. We
shall decide on behalf of society and we shall enforce our decisions by law so no one has
any choice. That we should rule in this fashion is our obligation to mankind.”
By contrast, individualists say, “We also think we are right and that the masses
seldom do what we think they should do, but we don’t believe in forcing anyone to comply
with our will because, if we grant that principle, then others, representing larger groups than
our own, could compel us to act as they decree, and that would be the end of our freedom.”
The affinity between intellectual egotism and coercion was dramatically
demonstrated by Canadian law professor, Alan Young, who wrote an editorial in the March
28, 2004 edition of the Toronto Star. His topic was “hate crimes,” and his solution was a
classic example of the collectivist mindset. He wrote:
The defining feature of the hate criminal is stupidity. It is a crime born of
intellectual deficiency.... Criminal justice actually can do very little to combat
stupidity.... The hate criminal probably needs rigorous deprogramming....
Just as some cancers require invasive surgery, the hate crime needs intrusive
measures... The usual out-of-site, out-of-mind approach to modern punishment just
won’t work in this case. For crimes of supreme stupidity we need Clockwork Orange
justice – strapping the hate criminal into a chair for an interminable period, and
keeping his eyes wide-open with metal clamps so he cannot escape from an
onslaught of cinematic imagery carefully designed to break his neurotic attachment
to self-induced intellectual impairment.
In the context of hate crime, I do have some regrets that we have a
constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.1
One of the quickest ways to spot a collectivist is to see how he reacts to public
problems. No matter what bothers him in his daily routine – whether it’s littering the
highway, smoking in public, dressing indecently, bigotry, sending out junk mail – you name
it, his immediate response is “There ought to be a law!” And, of course, the professionals in
government who make a living from coercion are more than happy to cooperate. The
consequence is that government just keeps growing and growing. It’s a one-way street.
Every year there are more and more laws and less and less freedom. Each law by itself
seems relatively benign, justified by some convenience or for the greater good of the greater
number, but the process continues forever until government is total and freedom is dead.
Bit-by-bit, the people, themselves, become the solicitor of their own enslavement.
THE ROBIN HOOD SYNDROME
A good example of this collectivist mindset is the use of government to perform acts
of charity. Most people believe that we all have a responsibility to help others in need if we
can, but what about those who disagree, those who couldn’t care less about the needs of
others? Should they be allowed to be selfish while we are so generous? The collectivist sees
people like that as justification for the use of coercion, because the cause is so worthy. He
sees himself as a modern Robin Hood, stealing from the rich but giving to the poor. Of
course, not all of it gets to the poor. After all, Robin and his men have to eat and drink and
be merry, and that doesn’t come cheap. It takes a giant bureaucracy to administer a public
charity, and the Robbing Hoods in government have become accustomed to a huge share of
the loot, while the peasants – well, they’re grateful for whatever they get. They don’t care
how much is consumed along the way. It was all stolen from someone else anyway.
The so-called charity of collectivism is a perversion of the Biblical story of the Good
Samaritan who stopped along the highway to help a stranger who had been robbed and
beaten. He even takes the victim to an inn and pays for his stay there until he recovers.
Everyone approves of such acts of compassion and charity, but what would we think if the
Samaritan had pointed his sword at the next traveler and threatened to kill him if he didn’t
also help? If that had happened, I doubt if the story would have made it into the Bible;
because, at that point, the Samaritan would be no different than the original robber – who
also might have had a virtuous motive. For all we know, he could have claimed that he was
merely providing for his family and feeding his children. Most crimes are rationalized in
this fashion, but they are crimes nevertheless. When coercion enters, charity leaves.1
Individualists refuse to play this game. We expect everyone to be charitable, but we
also believe that a person should be free not to be charitable if he doesn’t want to. If he
prefers to give to a different charity than the one we urge on him, if he prefers to give a
smaller amount that what we think he should, or if he prefers not to give at all, we believe
that we have no right to force him to our will. We may try to persuade him to do so; we may
appeal to his conscience; and especially we may show the way by our own good example;
but we reject any attempt to gang up on him, either by physically restraining him while we
remove the money from his pockets or by using the ballot box to pass laws that will take his
money through taxation. In either case, the principle is the same. It’s called stealing.
Collectivists would have you believe that individualism is merely another word for
selfishness, because individualists oppose welfare and other forms of coercive re-
distribution of wealth, but just the opposite is true. Individualists advocate true charity,
which is the voluntary giving of their own money, while collectivists advocate the coercive
giving of other people’s money; which, of course, is why it is so popular.
One more example: The collectivist will say, “I think everyone should wear seatbelts.
That just makes sense. People can be hurt if they don’t wear seatbelts. So, let’s pass a law
and require everyone to wear them. If they don’t, we’ll put those dummies in jail.” The
individualist says, “I think everyone should wear seatbelts. People can be hurt in accidents if
they don’t wear them, but I don’t believe in forcing anyone to do so. I believe in convincing
them with logic and persuasion and good example, if I can, but I also believe in freedom of
One of the most popular slogans of Marxism is: “From each according to his ability,
to each according to his need.” That’s the cornerstone of theoretical socialism, and it is a
very appealing concept. A person hearing that slogan for the first time might say: “What’s
wrong with that? Isn’t that the essence of charity and compassion toward those in need?
What could possibly be wrong with giving according to your ability to others according to
their need?” And the answer is, nothing is wrong with it – as far as it goes, but it is an
incomplete concept. The unanswered question is how is this to be accomplished? Shall it be
in freedom or through coercion?
I mentioned earlier that collectivists and individualists usually agree on objectives
but disagree over means, and this is a classic example. The collectivist says, take it by force
of law. The individualist says, give it through free will. The collectivist says, not enough
people will respond unless they are forced. The individualist says, enough people will
respond to achieve the task. Besides, the preservation of freedom is also important. The
collectivist advocates legalized plunder in the name of a worthy cause, believing that the
end justifies the means. The individualist advocates free will and true charity, believing that
a worthy objective does not justify committing theft and surrendering freedom.
There is a story of a Bolshevik revolutionary who was standing on a soapbox
speaking to a small crowd in Times Square. After describing the glories of socialism and
communism, he said: “Come the revolution, everyone will eat peaches and cream.” A little
old man at the back of the crown yelled out: “I don’t like peaches and cream.” The
Bolshevik thought about that for a moment and then replied: “Come the revolution,
comrade, you will like peaches and cream.”
This, then, is the fourth difference between collectivism and individualism, and it is
perhaps the most fundamental of them all: collectivists believe in coercion; individualists
believe in freedom.
5. EQUALITY VS. INEQUALITY UNDER LAW
The fifth concept that divides collectivism from individualism has to do with the way
people are treated under the law. Individualists believe that no two people are exactly alike,
and each one is superior or inferior to others in many ways but, under law, they should all
be treated equally. Collectivists believe that the law should treat people unequally in order
to bring about desirable changes in society. They view the world as tragically imperfect.
They see poverty and suffering and injustice and they conclude that something must be done
to alter the forces that have produced these effects. They think of themselves as social
engineers who have the wisdom to restructure society to a more humane and logical order.
To do this, they must intervene in the affairs of men at all levels and redirect their activities
according to a master plan. That means they must redistribute wealth and use the police
power of the state to enforce prescribed behavior.
The consequence of this mindset can be seen everywhere in society today. Almost
every country in the world has a tax system designed to treat people unequally depending on
their income, their marital status, the number of children they have, their age, and the type
of investments they may have. The purpose of this arrangement is to redistribute wealth,
which means to favor some classes over others. In some cases, there are bizarre loopholes
written into the tax laws just to favor one corporation or one politically influential group.
Other laws provide tax-exemption and subsidies to favored groups or corporations.
Inequality is the whole purpose of these laws.
In the realm of social relationships, there are laws to establish racial quotas, gender
quotas, affirmative-action initiatives, and to prohibit expressions of opinion that may be
objectionable to some group or to the master planners. In all of these measures, there is an
unequal application of the law based on what group or class you happen to be in or on what
opinion you hold. We are told that all of this is necessary to accomplish a desirable change
in society. Yet, after more than a hundred years of social engineering, there is not one place
on the globe where collectivists can point with pride and show where their master plan has
actually worked as they predicted. There have been many books written about the
collectivist utopia, but they never materialized in the real world. Wherever collectivism has
been applied, the results have been more poverty than before, more suffering than before,
and certainly more injustice than before.
There is a better way. Individualism is based on the premise that all citizens should
be equal under law, regardless of their national origin, race, religion, gender, education,
economic status, life style, or political opinion. No class should be given preferential
treatment, regardless of the merit or popularity of its cause. To favor one class over another
is not equality under law.
6. PROPER ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
When all of these factors are considered together, we come to the sixth ideological
division between collectivism and individualism. Collectivists believe that the proper role of
government should be positive, that the state should take the initiative in all aspects of the
affairs of men, that it should be aggressive, lead, and provide. It should be the great
organizer of society.
Individualists believe that the proper function of government is negative and
defensive. It is to protect, not to provide; for if the state is granted the power to provide for
some, it must also be able to take from others, and once that power is granted, there are
those who will seek it for their advantage. It always leads to legalized plunder and loss of
freedom. If government is powerful enough to give us everything we want, it is also
powerful enough to take from us everything we have.
Therefore, the proper function of government is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of its citizens; nothing more.1
1 The related question of a right to use deadly force to protect the lives of others is reviewed in Part Four in connection
with the White House order to shoot down hijacked airliners if they pose a threat to ground populations.
1 “David Crockett: Parliamentarian,” by William Reed, National Parliamentarian, Vol. 64, Third Quarter, 2003, p. 30.
1 “Hate Criminal Needs Deprogramming,” by Alan Young, Toronto Star, March 28, 2004, p. F7.
1 Let’s be clear on this. If we or our families really were starving, most of us would steal if that were the only way to
obtain food. It would be motivated by our intrinsic right to life, but let’s not call it virtuous charity. It would be raw
1 There is a third category of human action that is neither proper nor improper, neither defensive nor aggressive; activity
that may be undertaken by the state for convenience – such as building roads and maintaining recreational parks –
provided they are funded, not from general taxes, but by those who use them. Otherwise, some would benefit at the
expense of others, and that would be coercive re-distribution of wealth. These activities would be permissible because
they have a negligible impact on freedom. I am convinced they would be more efficiently run and offer better public
service if owned and operated by private industry, but there is no merit in being argumentative on that question when
much more burning issues are at stake. After freedom is secure, we will have the luxury to debate these finer points.
Another example of an optional activity is the allocation of broadcast frequencies to radio and TV stations. Although
this does not protect lives, liberty, or property, it is a matter of convenience to orderly communications. There is no
threat to personal freedom so long as the authority to grant licenses is administered impartially and does not favor one
class of citizens or one point of view over another. Another example of an optional government activity would be a law
in Hawaii to prevent the importation of snakes. Most Hawaiians want such a law for their convenience. This is not a
proper function of government because it does not protect the lives, liberty, or property of its citizens, but it is not
improper either so long as it is administered so that the cost is borne equally by all. It could be argued that this is a
proper function of government, because snakes could threaten domestic animals that are the property of its citizens, but
that would be stretching the point. It is this kind of stretching of reason that demagogues use when they want to
consolidate power. Almost any government action could be rationalized as an indirect protection of life, liberty, or
property. The defense against word games of this kind is to stand firm against funding in any way that causes a shift of
wealth from one group to another. That strips away the political advantage that motivates most of the collectivist
schemes in the first place. Without the possibility of legalized plunder, most of the brain games will cease. Finally,
when issues become murky, and it really is impossible to clearly see if an action is acceptable for government, there is
always a rule of thumb that can be relied on to show the proper way: That government is best which governs least.