Individualism and Collectivism

It's pretty clear that all human society, from primitive band to tribe to civilization, is based on collective action. The most fundamental human skill is cooperation. The trouble with cooperation is that it carries evolutionary risk, the risk that something an individual does for the collective benefit will be exploited by cheats, thieves, and free riders. Thus, cooperation only works if those particular individualistic tendencies can be suppressed. In individual hunter-gatherer bands, such suppression is managed by an ethic and by punishment, the ethic being a collective consciousness and the punishments being ridicule, banishment, and execution.

More complex societies evolved more elaborate means of control: myth, hierarchy, religion, and law. Perhaps civilization's greatest contribution in this regard was money, which greatly expanded the capability of cooperation via trade. Civilization also invented new instruments of collective action, like debt.

All of these had the effects limiting individual scope and freedom. Of course they also brought something like more freedom to those on top of the hierarchy.

I'm not really changing the subject, but I was listening to an NPR story about a boatwright. He mentioned that he loved the sea, but gave up commercial fishing, because the battle there was not against the elements as often depicted, but against one's neighbor, the other fisherman. That reminded me of the very central fact that the human competition for existence was always ultimately against other people. Malthus and Darwin are the ultimate economic analysts.

I doubt that either Marx or Hayek properly appreciate this fact.


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