I recently met someone who embodied the values and intelligence I seek for myself daily. This person has the qualities of a genius and a wealth of knowledge that could change the world for the better. I remember meeting them for the first time and thinking, “Wow, what am I doing with my life,” as the imposter syndrome started creeping up from within my gut. In their lifetime, they saw a world of pain and trauma rising in the Middle East, had lived through and come out of poverty, and still managed to forge a path for themselves to success. On the other hand, and from the other side of the world, I haven’t really done much with my 33 years besides take for granted the privilege to live in peace, maybe work like a dog now and then, fail at achieving many goals, and my personal favourite as you all know, disappoint my father (just kidding, not really). With my brain wired the way it is, this individual had me thinking about the differences between Collectivism and Individualism and reaffirmed – to me anyway – the notion that life cannot simply be led by one or the other.
This post obviously isn’t about the brilliant mind I met earlier this summer (although they are worthy of their own post). Still, it had me wondering how equality is a much broader topic than the fundamental human rights to which we’re all entitled. In my last post, My equality is more Equal than Your Equality Part I, I discussed how Collectivism is a socioeconomic ideology that values working together to build and maintain our society and support one another through social programs. Today, I want to unpack the individual responsibility one owes oneself despite all the uncontrollable variables stacked against us, which further contributes to what makes one more equal than the other.
Freedom of choice comes with a price
The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.Ayn Rand (Alice O’Connor)
I think we should all vote to obliterate the word “free” and all of its brothers, sisters and cousins because it’s evident – especially with today’s global inflation – that nothing in life is free, not even the air that you’re breathing as you read this. Everything in this world comes with a price, monetary or consequential. For every action, there’s a reaction. The purely collective mindset will argue that pooling our resources together will mean “free” services for all, yet the notion of pooling resources suggests a price to be paid for said services. In other words, just because you didn’t pay for this service doesn’t mean someone else didn’t pay for it on your behalf. Let me pause here and reiterate a point I made long ago: I am not saying that we shouldn’t have free healthcare, free housing, free education, etc.; I’m saying that we need to acknowledge that the word free is a political ploy that plays directly into your emotions and that nothing in life is free.
Now that we’ve established that nothing is free in this world, we can move on to the bread and butter of this piece. The Hofstede Insight collected data from countries worldwide to better understand power distribution within societies and how that translates to freedom. Countries like Japan, Singapore and Malaysia have an index score of below 50 (more collective) for Individualism, while the United States scores 91. The Hofstede Insight describes Individualism as “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.” This degree can explain whether a society thinks as “I’s” or “We’s”. For example, Japan’s low score suggests that people tend to think collectively and share accountability in most aspects of life. At the same time, the US expects individuals within society to take more responsibility for their livelihood. The latter gives one the independence to put in as much effort as they want to advance, increasing the risk of inequality; the former invests in ensuring a higher equality index at the expense of individual freedom. Of course, I’m neither saying that there isn’t “any” independence in countries with a low index score on Individualism nor that one may have a better life in a country with a high index score. Countries in the Middle East have some of the lowest index scores on Individualism and somehow produce some of the most successful and independent individuals in the world! However, couldn’t we argue that in a country where Individualism is encouraged, one could choose to build a better life for themselves and then choose to contribute to their society in the way they see fit?
Yet there are still people who confuse individualism with selfishness.Albert Camus
I often say that one must learn to govern oneself before one can govern a country because whether one likes it or not, at its core, governing starts with choices, passive or actionable. One has to make at least one choice every day, starting with the will to live. Think about it: from the moment you wake up, you choose whether or not to get out of bed, wash up, eat breakfast, go to work, call your parents, and so on. You set your intention for the day and decide whether to be happy or not. Making choices is inevitable in this life and, at minimum, a form of Individualism. Broadening the perspective, you further set goals for yourself and build an action plan based on your motivation and the external factors that may help or hinder you from achieving them. This is where a person who values Individualism may thrive, and I use the word “may” loosely. Let’s zoom in on Individualism to understand its risks and rewards.
A society founded on Individualism will tell you, “you can be anything you set your mind to” because you are free to pave your way. However, such a society will never dare tell you it will be easy. In some countries, the governing system is set up for certain groups of people to fail. If they overcome every obstacle imaginable, they become a national-inspiration-turned-into-an-Oscar-worthy-movie designed to mislead the public into believing that it is, in fact, easy to be anything you want to be (*cough*US*cough). Yet, despite a flawed system where physical and economic discrimination run high, millions worldwide still desire the dream these societies sell over the collective reality in which they live. Why is that even after knowing it requires sacrificing the notion that we are all equal? Because freedom of choice has more sex appeal than living a life chosen for them. Because with freedom of choice, at least you have a chance to achieve true fulfilment.
Individualism today has a bad rap because of the misconception circling the globe that it is fueled by selfishness and egotism, eventually enabling racist ideologies. This idea that individualism harbours hate for others is quite frankly ignorant because, as I pointed out above, everyone has a duty to govern themselves first and foremost. No one is equal, and we have to accept that. The focus needs to shift away from equality and towards equity, the latter being adaptable to one’s circumstances. Rather than aiming to attain equality, a society must focus on removing or minimizing obstacles that prevent people from achieving their potential. For example, public establishments founded on racism, credit scores that are designed to keep the poor poor, corruption, bribery, and crony capitalism, to name a few, are all barriers that hinder one’s success. Neither Collectivism nor Individualism is protected from developing these obstacles. The truth is that Individualism gives one the freedom to live the life one wants and takes accountability for the choices one makes. That feeling that you can live your life without fear is liberating! True individualists will share their knowledge and empower others to do the same. In contrast, Collectivism risks keeping everything the same without a second thought as to whether “the same” works the same way for everyone equally.
In the end it all comes full circle
Collectivism and Individualism alone can be disastrous to society. In a purely collectivist society, we have no regard for one’s self and the consequences of our actions. Whether you’re a low-contributing, self-centred, entitled, or harmful human being, you would still have access to the services society provides (except for prisoners, perhaps, which is another controversial topic). This is where equality starts to show its cracks. On the other side of the spectrum lies pure individualist societies that risk brewing some of the most heinous, selfish, narcissistic creatures to walk this earth. The worst part of an individualistic society is when those “creatures” run the country. This is where independence shows its flaws. People don’t realize that at both extremes, both ideologies come back full circle and eventually become one and the same. Left to their own demise, both Individualism and Collectivism can be dangerous. The former can lead to anarchy, while the latter can create a totalitarian government. You may be wondering in which society I would choose to live: I’m privileged to have the freedom to choose.
Country Comparison. Hofstede Insights. (2020, August 12). https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/japan,the-usa/
Iyengar, S. (2011). The art of choosing. New York: Twelve.