The Great Ice Storm of 1998 caught Canadians in Quebec and neighboring provinces totally off guard. Montreal, the hardest hit, looked as if it were bombed by ice. Millions suffered days to weeks of sub-freezing temperatures without electricity and heating. At least 25 people are dead, and the damage toll of this freak storm is over $2 billion. During this emergency, the media provided many stories of generosity and “community spirit,” as countless people helped others to cope and survive. The media also reported people exploiting the emergency by looting others or “price gouging” on badly-needed supplies and services. Many journalists and commentators seemed eager to have us interpret the good will as demonstrating the “virtue” of altruism-collectivism, and the bad will as demonstrating the “vice” of selfishness-individualism. Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail’s lead columnist, righteously asserted that “rights yield to responsibility as community trumps individualism.” (Globe column — Jan. 15, 1998.)

Contrary to what leftists want us to believe, individualism does not mean looting others to satisfy one’s desires. Nor does it mean unconcern for others.

But the ice storm taught the opposite lesson. To combat emergencies, people need more individualism, not less.

Mr. Simpson’s false conclusion flows from a straw man called “individualism.” Contrary to what leftists want us to believe, individualism does not mean looting others to satisfy one’s desires. Nor does it mean unconcern for others.

Individualism is rooted in the fact that, unlike animals, man must think if he wants to live. By following reason, man acquires the knowledge and skills needed to create the values — food, shelter, medicine, fuel, electric generators, ambulances — that promote his survival and happiness.

Regardless of how much an individual collaborates with others, thinking occurs in individuals — there is no community brain. Man’s basic social requirement is that he be left free — free from coercion by others — to acquire knowledge, invent technology, create wealth and trade, all of which are crucial in preventing and combating emergency situations. Politically, individualism means that each person’s life is his own — that each person has the inalienable right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. Looting others is not compatible with individualism. Helping loved ones in emergencies is.

Politically, individualism means that each person’s life is his own — that each person has the inalienable right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. Looting others is not compatible with individualism.

What about helping neighbors or strangers? One byproduct of individualism is benevolence — a general attitude of good will towards one’s neighbors and fellow human beings. Benevolence is impossible in a society where people violate each others’ rights. If an emergency arises, it’s benevolence that motivates a person to help victims get back on their feet. And it’s individualism that makes a person capable of helping others.

Thankfully, emergencies are not the norm, and so helping others is a marginal issue in life, not the standard of morality. If morality is a guide to successful living, then individualistic traits such as ambition, rationality, self-reliance and productiveness — not charity or generosity — are precious moral virtues. If I were handicapped and thus dependent on the generosity of others, I would much prefer living in a society that embraces individualism. Why? The more technology and wealth people create the less generosity it would take to address my needs, and more than enough generosity would be available.

A person’s moral worth is judged by how much he sacrifices himself to the group. [Under collectivism] the more emergencies (and victims) the better, because they provide more opportunity for “virtue.”

The antipode of individualism is collectivism, which subordinates the individual to the group — be it the “community,” the tribe, the race, the proletariat, etc. A person’s moral worth is judged by how much he sacrifices himself to the group. [Under collectivism] the more emergencies (and victims) the better, because they provide more opportunity for “virtue.”

In practice, collectivism renders the individual as sacrificial fodder for whoever seizes political power. (Ask the Russians.) History has amply demonstrated that ingenuity and productivity get squashed in collectivist societies. People are punished for ability. Money is stolen from Peter to pay Paul, or to waste on the projects of those who hold political power.

Under collectivism, everyone has a potential claim on everyone else, which generates distrust and animosity — not “community spirit.” The net result: a society wreaking in malevolence and poverty, and thus poorly prepared to deal with emergencies.

Under collectivism, life becomes one continuous emergency. Consider the former Soviet Union where animosity was rampant and millions starved from famine. Or consider North Korea today. Ironically, the scapegoat is years of continuous “bad weather.”

Under collectivism, everyone has a potential claim on everyone else, which generates distrust and animosity — not “community spirit.”

What the victims of the Great Ice Storm needed was more individualism, not less. Had it not been for the collectivist policies adopted by Canada, particularly during the past three decades, Canadians would be more innovative, more self-reliant, and wealthier — hence more prepared to deal with emergency situations. Even Quebec separatism, a blatant waste of time and money, is driven by collectivism and political power lust, not individualism.

It’s time for people like Jeffrey Simpson to abandon their emotional attachment to collectivism and “open” their minds to the virtue of individualism — otherwise Canada might someday become one continuous emergency.