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I met Justin at the track early the other morning. Whenever I’m there, he is running hard. I asked him what sport he was training for. Justin said he wasn’t doing it for a team, his effort was for his own “personal benefit.” I respect his motives and admire his drive for individual improvement.

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Other efforts toward personal benefit are not so worthy. Bernie Madoff in New York, Allen Stanford in Antigua, Tom Petters in Minnesota, and Gerald Payne of Greater Ministries International are just a few of the high-flying criminals who enriched themselves by robbing others of personal benefits.

More characteristic of our age are the financial wizards who took wild risks with millions, even billions, of other people’s dollars, like Angelo Mozilo of Countryside Financial, or the many executives of Goldman Sachs. They often win these gambles and enrich themselves with unimaginable sums of money. But they often lose, too. Then they take home a bit less, while the fortunes of thousands of others disappear.

A few are so careless that they end up in jail, but most of these seekers of personal benefits just walk away from the scene of the crime. Mozilo had to pay back $67.5 million to settle SEC charges that he misled mortgage buyers. But he had pocketed over $400 million playing with others’ money, and he admitted no guilt.

The individualist quest for personal benefit is not in itself admirable. Individualism must be judged by its relation to the collective or it is just selfishness. How does one person’s drive for personal benefit affect others? We might think differently about Justin’s workouts if he neglected his parental responsibilities in order to stay fit.

Conservatives have tried to make “collective” a dirty word -- anyone who thinks about the collective good must believe in “collectivism”, meaning the tyranny of the masses, loss of freedom, the Soviet collective farm model. That attitude might be upsetting to those Americans who have banded together in collectives during our history, from volunteer firefighters to dairy farmers to union workers to religious congregations.

The person who does not belong to some group engaged in collective action is rare and often lonely. Disdain for people pursuing a worthy goal, just because they pool their ideas, time, and money into a collective, is silly.

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Collectives aren't inherently good or bad. Collectives can become tyrannical. Some are designed to be dictatorial, as in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Some begin with democracy, idealism and familial intimacy, but eventually decline into hierarchy and even criminality, like some labor unions in the twentieth century. In those cases, the few who benefited ignored the collective welfare of the collective.

Collectives are living organisms. Some disappear, as their members go their separate ways. Others endure for generations or centuries by preserving the allegiance to each other that motivates the sacrifice of personal benefit for the collective good.

Partisan politics only addresses the conflict between individualism and collective welfare to defend from attack. Republicans say that liberal policies, like the Affordable Care Act, and liberals like Obama, are socialist, meaning too collective. Democrats say that conservative policies, like cutting taxes on the wealthy, and conservatives like Romney, are selfish individualists.

But the political philosophies of the parties are deeply influenced by which side of this divide they are on. For years, Paul Ryan lavished praise on Ayn Rand’s extreme individualist philosophy. She wrote, “Collectivism requires self-sacrifice, the subordination of one's interests to those of others.” The individual should “exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” She condemned altruism and wrote a book entitled “The Virtue of Selfishness”. Emphasizing only individual rights, she considered government support of education, health care, farming or aid to the poor as a form of “looting” by “parasites”.

In a 2005 speech to the Atlas Society, a collective of Rand adherents, Ryan said: “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. ... In almost every fight we are involved in here, on Capitol Hill ... usually comes down to one conflict: individualism vs. collectivism ... there is no more fight that is more obvious between the differences of these two conflicts than Social Security. Social Security right now is a collectivist system.”

Lately Ryan has disavowed his former self. In April he said it was an “urban legend” that he adhered to her ideas. That’s not surprising, since she was an adulterer and a drug addict, who completely rejected all forms of religion. Until recently, though, Rand’s immorality and atheism were irrelevant to Ryan and other Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, because of her total commitment to unfettered capitalism.

Future elections won’t decide a winner between Ayn-Rand-style egoism and generous collectivism. But they will push our national balance in one direction or the other, as Americans swing between caring about their fellow Americans and caring about themselves.

Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Out Lives