Social and political philosophy is often couched in the language of "isms;" that is, highly idealised conceptual frameworks. These polarized idealizations never exist in the "real world," but they usually represent broad sociopolitical tendencies. In short, societies tend to "lean" one way or another. F.A. Hayek's, The Road to Serfdom identifies two of these "isms:" individualism and collectivism. His basic argument is that eighteenth-century individualism (John Locke, Adam Smith) led to dramatic increases in the quality of life in the Western world; and that nineteenth-century collectivism has led to equally dramatic decreases in that quality of life. Hence, the book's title: The Road to Serfdom. Hayek argues that social and political philosophy is a matter of choice, we are not predestined toward one or the other: philosophical ideas matter! In the United States today, the Democratic Party leans toward collectivism and the Republican Party leans toward individualism, however neither party seem to be very cognizant of the philosophical bases that Hayek identifies. So let's sketch in the broad drift of these two polar "isms."
Individualism argues that personal liberty, individual planning, free market competition, and democratic political institutions are essential for the realization of the "Good Life." Moreover, individualism argues that the relatively unfettered pursuit of self interest by individuals contributes leads to the social good. In other words, society as a whole benefits when individuals are allowed to plan their own lives (pursue their own self-interest) by forging voluntary contracts with others. We all pursue what we believe is "good" for us as individuals. We can best realize these personal individual ends (get a good job) by means of voluntary cooperation with others (paying tuition at the College of Mount St. Joseph). No one forced you come to MSJ. If the college fails to meet your expectations you can choose to take your tuition money and go to another college. If over time, enough students decide to go to another college, MSJ will go bankrupt. However, if we meet student expectations, we'll not only survive but also drive our competitors out of business. (Look out UC, Xavier, Miami, Thomas More, and NKU!) When we earn that monopoly, we cannot sit back and enjoy that enviable position, because our current or future competitors will copy what we did to earn that monopoly. Thus, over the long run competition leads to higher quality education at a lower cost. Not that government had little to do with it. The only thing the free market really needs is to enforce contracts, and monitor and enforce laws against theft and fraud.
Collectivism argues that the free market generates inequalities that cannot be overcome. That's because all markets are subject to business cycles that, by their very nature, wax and wane. Of course, those who own the means of production survive by cutting back on labor costs: buying machines to replace works, making workers work longer hours for less money etc. At the bottom of the business cycle, competition does not work because there are more workers than jobs and therefore dissatified workers are easily replaced. Thus, when workers find themselves at the bottom of one of these cycles, they become alienated from themselves, their family, and their work. They lack economic security. Collectivism, therefore seeks to spread out this risk by using the coercive power of government to plan national and global economies. Collective planners are experts that replace the free market mechanism with a collective system that insures the well being of everyone. Typical collectivist mechanisms include social welfare, unemployment insurance, socialized medicine, centalized banking, and public education. When government control is complete we call it totalitarianism. Under totalitarian collectivist regimes private property, private institutions, and individual planning are replaced by public property, public institutions, and collective planning. Therefore, under a totalitarian regime the College of Mount St. Joseph would be taken over by government's central planners. At that point, all colleges would be controlled by government and you would have no choice of which college you want to attend. My guess is that if MSJ were to continue as a public institution, planners would keep its health care programs and scrap all the other programs. There would be no competition between programs because they'll all be the same. Central planners would decide what is taught, who teaches, how much they get paid, and which students get admitted. Of course, UC would be converted to a football college that trains men to play football. But it would be very boring to watch because the teams wouldn't be allowed to keep score.
My next blog will discuss what Hayek says about the nature of leadership and followership under individualism and collectivism.