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Defeating the Collectivist Left? Defeating the Individualist Right? Both Lose.

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

(and, stay with me, the rest of the story is, the Winner is: Individualist&Collectivist, Right&Left, Market&Government, the "&" meaning joint, interdependent, each essential to the other, invest in both to ensure each is a viable partner)

The one and the many is perhaps the oldest problem of human experience. In social thought, this problem manifests itself in the tension between collectivism and individualism… The … quest for the common good is not reducible either to the simple aggregate of individual goods or to the promotion of the needs of the collective at the expense of the one …the collectivist and the individualist are diabolically complementary (Ballor, 2018)

Because Metaeconomics works to bring the moral and ethical dimension back into economic thinking, the various ethical philosophies need to be considered. The Ballor (2018) quote points to Christian ethical philosophy (and other religious philosophies have similar themes, especially Buddhist framing, about balancing ego&empathy, see Tomer, 2017) offsetting the potential for a counter-productive, destructive dialectic between individualism and collectivism if one works to defeat the other. The irony is this: Extreme individualism in the attempt to offset collectivism destroys individualism; extreme collectivism in the attempt to offset individualism destroys collectivism.

Politicians on the individualist right vs on the collectivist left: Take heed. Seek synergy not tribal warfare. Build unity: Stop divisive rhetoric, as it will destroy both capitalism&democracy. And, a bit more collectivism and bit less individualism might also dampen the progress of the Coronavirus ( )? Just asking.

To move beyond destruction, Christian philosophy points, instead, to the potential for synergy, the dialectic moving to a new and better synthesis of individualism&collectivism, in good balance. Metaeconomics makes the same point in somewhat different terms of reference, and based in empirical science: Good and synergistic balance is be sought in i&we, ego&empathy, self&other-interest, and, writ large, in joint market&community as well as market&government.

Ballor (2018) sets the stage this way:

Collectivists and individualists can be distinguished by the value they each put on individual goods relative to the common good. To put it simply: collectivists prioritize a flawed conception of the common good at the expense of individual goods, while individualists emphasize the importance of individual goods over and against the common good, sometimes even to the extent of denying the common good as a coherent concept… a Christian perspective treads a constructive path forward between these two dangers.

In Christian philosophy, people need to avoid both “An Individualist Hell” arising from focusing exclusively on the individual good and “A Collectivist Hell” arising from focusing exclusively on the common good (Ballor, 2018). Rather, the task is to seek the complementarity inherent in the jointness of individual&common good.

What is individualist hell? Ballor (2018) quotes C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce:

“…every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell.” One of the more striking illustrations is the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, in “a huge house all in the Empire style,” marching around insistently “muttering to himself all the time. ‘It was Soult’s fault. It was Ney’s fault. It was Josephine’s fault. . . .’”

Sound familiar?

What is collectivist hell? Ballor (2018) points out, referring to a book by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, wherein IT is a massive disembodied brain, the central planner at the center of government in charge:

Just as individuals have been done away with, so have individual goods. IT is the consummate central planner. IT embodies—in a uniquely disembodied way—the ethos and the hubris of collectivism. IT is a mind completely given over to the libido dominandi, having impressed its personality over everything it can control, and thus Camazotz is a vision of the hellish existence of the collectivists and their emaciated conception of the common good.

Deep state, administrative state, perhaps? Yet, eliminating regulations, shutting down public funding of education and health, eliminating the department of agriculture, all signs of extreme individualist framing, is also not the solution. Some central law-based regulation is essential. There are both good and bad regulations, the good ones being those that people---- hopefully somewhere close to a majority in a viable democracy--- can all go along with. Some of said things are essential to both the i&we, like sustaining the Spaceship Earth on which we all Travel together: Environmental regulations, anyone?

Empirical and scientific evidence? Actually there is substantive evidence coming out of Metaeconomics (and the underlying empirical research in Behavioral Economics). Metaeconomics points to individualism&collectivism, with said jointness supported with empirical evidence, especially in the arena of Empathy Conservation. It is about avoiding Tragedies represented in failures of various kinds in both the economy&government (see Lynne et al., 2016; Lynne, in press; Lynne and Saarinen, in press). Empathy Conservation is all about balancing ego&empathy, balancing while pursuing the joint self&other-interest, which is to maximize the own-interest in joint individual&common good, joint individualist&collectivist.

Other examples? Recent SpaceX&NASA launching of a spaceship to the international space station. Long standing PrivateFoodIndustry&PublicLandGrantUniversitiesDeptofAgriculture, which jointly fill the supermarkets everyday. Trade&Cap to solve the acid rain problem. And, even the Affordable Care Act could have worked with PrivateInsurance&PublicMandatedInsurance, but it is in the process of being destroyed due to failing to understand that Individualist-only (Market-only) approaches will self-destruct, just like Government-only approaches well also self-destruct. It likely applies across the whole spectrum of the economy&government: Metaeconomics points to it being highly probable that empirical testing will confirm it (again, see Lynne, in press, for the realms of possibility).

As Ballor (2018) highlights:

For collectivists, who claim to value the common good above all, the most salient category of social analysis is the general welfare. This is often understood in terms of the well-being of the poorest, most vulnerable, or otherwise most oppressed class in a society… (in contrast) individualists value only individual goods. To the extent that the common good is given any value at all, it is only as an aggregation of individual goods.

As made clear in Lynne (in press), individualist view plays out in Neoclassical Economics while the collectivist view plays out in the framework of Neoinstitutional Economics. The two frameworks are integrated, made into one coherent framework in Metaeconomics: IndividualGood&CommonGood. It does so by seeking to build a widely shared overlap --- what everyone can go along with --- in the other (shared with others, yet internal to the own-self) -interest. It is about balancing self&other-interest on the way to each person maximizing their own-interest.


Ballor, J.J. “Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and Christianity: Moving Beyond Collectivism and Individualism.” Public Discourse. March 21, 2018.

Lynne, G. D. Metaeconomics: Tempering Excess Greed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, in press.

Lynne, G. D., Czap, N. V., Czap, H. J., and Burbach, M. E. . "Theoretical Foundation for Empathy Conservation: Toward Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons." Review of Behavioral Economics 3 (2016): 245-79.

Lynne, G. D. and Saarinen, P. P. "Metaeconomic Solutions to Dysfunctional Water Markets." In Constructing a More Scientific Economics: John Tomer’s Pluralistic and Humanistic Economics, edited by M. Altman. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, in press.

Tomer, John F. "Why Buddhist Economics Is Needed: Overcoming Large Scale Biophysical and Socio-Economic Dysfunctions." Real-World Economics Review, no. 82 (2017): 143-58.

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