August 11, 2002
The Virtues of our Time: Collectivism, Nihilism and Pragmatism
By David Veksler
American politicians today generally act on the dominant
philosophy of the day, which can be described by three main values:
collectivism, nihilism, and pragmatism.
These values directly contradict those held by the founders of the
Collectivism is the idea that groups, not individual people, are the only proper beneficiaries of values. It states that your identity as a human being comes from involuntary or voluntary membership in various groups – such as society, race, “culture” or even sexual orientation. It then states that the only or the primary recipient of one’s labor should be this group, rather than yourself. In politics, this means that “serving your country” is more important than the services your government is supposed to provide you, namely protection from the criminal elements of the world. This view was summarized by JFK as “Ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country.”
Both conservative and liberal presidents frequently espouse this ideal. For example, in promoting volunteerism, President George Bush said: "Citizen service is the very American idea that we meet our challenges not as isolated individuals but as members of a true community, with all of us working together. Our mission is nothing less than to spark a renewed sense of obligation, a new sense of duty, a new season of service...”
The basis of this view is that a collective of individuals is more than the sum of its parts, and that by belonging to a collective, a person can acquire special rights and obligations he would not have otherwise. The clear implication of collectivism is that the individual becomes secondary to the group, and in fact becomes its tool rather than an end in himself. Implicit in collectivism is the idea that collectives can think, benefit, and obtain rights just as individuals can. Collectives are even attributed personalities called “culture” that everyone within it is expected to embrace. Each member of a collective is responsible for its failures, and everyone is to be praised if any one person in it accomplishes something. Anyone who pursues his own “selfish” interests, or has goals that differ from the “collective’s” is deemed a traitor to his society, country, race, and so on and usually faces dire consequences. Reality is rejected in favor of the consensus, and truth becomes relative to the purposes of the collective.
The opposite of collectivism is individualism. Individualism declares that each and every man may live his own life for his own happiness, as an end to himself, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor others to himself. It rejects the view that a group of men has special rights and that a “public good” exists by declaring that there is no collective stomach or a collective mind because only individuals can benefit from any good, and only individuals can think. Individualism is the idea that groups are simply a collection of individuals, and any rights claimed by them derive directly from the rights of the individuals composing such a group. As Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The only associations that an individualist values are those voluntarily chosen, not born or drafted into.
Any good stolen from a man for the sake of “society” cannot be shared with society as a while, but must be given to other individuals, benefiting some at the expensive of others. Likewise, an invention is not the result of “collective thought” but of innovation and originality on the part of its creator. He may have built on the ideas of others, but his invention represents his own original, independent thinking, from which he has a right to profit without having to share the values the inventor receives with others. Politically, the result of such as principle is capitalism: a social system where the individual does not live by permission of others, but by inalienable right. The inevitable result of collectivism on the other hand is socialism: a system where the individual is only a tool to serve the “social good” – and because there is no such thing a collective benefit, the profit of the politically well-connected looter at the expensive of the productive worker is the inevitable result of any collectivist system.
The second major trait of “post-modern” political thought is nihilism. Nihilism assumes that there are no objective values independent from one’s thought, but that values are derived solely from whatever means are necessary to achieve one’s immediate goals, whatever they may be. This means that there are no objective or universal standards which everyone must observe, but only the immediate actions needed to accomplish one’s passing whims and fancies. Embracing collectivism, nihilism states that any arbitrary values chosen by culture or individuals are an absolute, independent of the actual benefit or harm they may have on one’s life. In short, nihilism takes the stance that values are not physical, but mental entities – that they are not derived from reality but whatever random goal your mind comes up with.
The opposite of nihilism and subjectivism is moral
objectivism – which states that values are
in fact derived from reality, not random whims, and that the facts of reality,
not culture or consensus determine right and wrong. Moral objectivism states that there are
certain necessary values, such as food, shelter, and other material goods that
man needs to obtain to survive. The
rejection of objective, rational values is the primary cause of the rise of
The state of public education is a perfect example of the natural consequence of collectivist, nihilist values. Educators correctly state that self-esteem is crucial to children’s development, but they take away the means to attain self-esteem by claiming that it comes from cultural and racial group association rather than individual achievement. They cripple the ability of children to set goals and motivate themselves by preaching that serving society through community service, rather than self-motivation and hard work, leads to success. They reward students for C’s as well as A’s and teach that all that is needed to be happy with oneself is to be oneself, whatever that means, rather than work at setting and reaching goals. Furthermore, by claiming that reality and morality is subjective and dependent on cultural, social or personal opinion, that logic is useless, and that confidence in one’s opinion is “close-minded” they cause kids to follow the inevitable consequences of such an ideology. When social approval rather than individual accomplishment is the only standard of value children have, peer approval becomes the ultimate goal, and kids seek it by open sexuality, drugs, or violence because it is the only means they perceive of being recognized in the collectivist system their schools put forth.
Pragmatism follows naturally from nihilism. It is the idea that men do not need to follow absolutes or principles, but should act only on the immediate needs of any situation. As president Bush recently said, “I'm so pleased that a member of my Cabinet came. I picked a good man when I picked the Secretary of Education. I didn't pick somebody who dwelt on theory.” The rejection of “theory” is the rejection of the idea that any choice has any implications to consider other than the immediate consequences. Bill and Hillary Clinton are the typical products of such “post-modern,” unprincipled thinking. Both Clinton and Bush welcome the Arab dictators and urge compromise with PLO terrorists when they need to please the oil interests, just as warmly as they welcome Israeli leaders and the praise the cause of Zionism to please the Jewish lobby. That Bill Clinton would retaliate for terrorist attacks with one or two missiles fired into the desert so as not to offend world opinion, ignoring the kind of message it would give to terrorists, and then lobby and claim that he “would personally grab a rifle, get in a ditch and fight and die” to protect Israel demonstrates this unprincipled and pragmatic mentality. In her campaign for Senate, Hillary Clinton solicited campaign contributions from racist, anti-Semitic Muslim groups right before speaking at Synagogues in front of welcoming crowds. President Bush is only a marginal improvement. Initially strong in his anti-environmentalist stance, and support of business, he wavered and conceded whenever he saw his poll number sag. Then, despite his lip service to free trade and free market, Bush supported steel tariffs, subsidies to farming interests, and a huge “economic aid package” that passed just as the economy was starting to recover from an overly controlling government that caused the depression in the first place. Recently, he has curbed efforts to pursue terrorists abroad as coalitions composed of less-than democratic nations have faltered – exemplifying the collectivist notion that a moral judgment can only be reached by a social consensus, and wavered in his support of Israel’s right to self defense to please European and domestic critics.
The opposite of pragmatism is principled action, the view
that decisions must be made in accordance to established, universal principles,
because ad hoc, pragmatic action will lead to contradicting and self-defeating
policy. For example, while Alan
Greenspan recognizes that setting interest rates to be too low will
over-encourage investment, create economic instability and lead to recession in
the long run, he still engages in short term “emergency” inflationary measures
that caused the investment spree of the late 1990’s and consequently, the
recent financial depression. This is
equivalent to obtaining huge credit card balances to fulfill “immediate needs”
–ignoring the need for long term saving and planning and the consequences of
permanent debts. However, politicians
claim to be immune from principles that apply to individuals as if policies
that are bad for individuals can me made good by volume. Turning to foreign policy, in his campaign,
President Bush claimed to follow a principled policy by claiming that “The
first question is: What's in the best interests of the
Thus, the guiding philosophy for politicians on both sides of the spectrum is collectivism, nihilism, and pragmatism, while the classical liberal values that this country was founded on is sometimes given lip service, but largely forgotten. The resulting consequences have been clear – a faltering economy, emboldened and unchallenged enemies abroad, a failing educational system, and an increasingly invasive, controlling government. The only way out of the current mess is to once again embrace values that promote the individual’s “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” adopting an objective morality, and a policy that is based on principle, not momentary pragmatism.