On the Conflict Between Individual and Common Interests

This is the last installment based on my experiences in Finland in the last month. A few days before I returned to Canada, the main national newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published a guest column that caught my eye. The writer—a university lecturer—argued that “emphasizing the individual [rights] instead of the community is direct continuation of social Darwinism.” Such argument is false: there is no conflict between the interests of an individual and the group—nor has protection of individual rights anything to do with social Darwinism. Quite the contrary: only in society where the government protects individual freedom can everyone pursue their own interests—without violating others’ rights—in harmony with each other. And everyone benefits from pursuit of individual interests, as Adam Smith convincingly showed.  Individual rights and freedom must be clearly defined so that a community can function for everyone’s mutual benefit and that disputes can be resolved justly. Individual rights are not an impediment to collaboration with others but its requirement.

Pursuing self-interest and protecting individual rights do not lead to social Darwinism, i.e., the survival of the fittest. The father of social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer’s reasoning was based on a false analogy: because Darwinism applies to other species, it applies to humans as well. But human interaction is not based on the stronger eating the weaker but on competition, trade, and collaboration. A community thrives when work is divided and everyone competes and specializes in what they can do best, and products and services are freely traded. Competition does not lead to destruction of the weakest but encourages them to seek work that best matches their qualifications and creates better, less expensive products and services.

The Finnish guest columnist argued that protection of individual rights leads to “greed and oppression.” However, greed and oppression do not belong to a society in which the government protects individual rights (if greed is understood as the irrational lust for someone else’s property through illegal means). Economic oppression, or the immoral financial exploitation of others, for example through fraud, violates their rights and is punishable by law. Political oppression happens in countries where government violates individual rights of its citizens or denies them altogether, such as in Venezuela, Cuba, or North Korea. Although oppression is possible anywhere because crooks, in politics or business, can always exist (because we have free will), it is less likely in systems where individual rights are protected.

Protecting individual rights does not mean trampling over those who are weaker. Everyone, the weak and the strong, has the same rights to life, liberty, and property—but that does not impose a duty on others to provide means of livelihood or property. How can the truly weak, such as the handicapped, cope in a system that is based on individual liberty, competition, trade, and collaboration? Many people think that unless charity is made mandatory, no-one would help those who are less well off. In a system where altruism is not forced, the truly destitute (which would be a very small minority because competition, free trade, and collaboration increase overall wealth and well-being) depend on private charity. But a system where individual freedom is protected creates more benevolence and goodwill toward others than mandatory charity through taxation. In countries with high taxation, such as Finland and others in Europe people donate relatively little to charity or do volunteer work because they feel that they already contribute enough to common welfare through taxes. In the United States, where taxes are relatively low, people donate to charity and volunteer much more than in Europe, despite of working more hours than Europeans on average.

A worry that voluntary charity and helping others would cease unless forced is based on a very cynical view of human nature. In a free society, everyone is free to help as much as they want—and history and current evidence of America show that they indeed do.

Competition, division of labor, free trade and collaboration increase productivity which leads to wealth creation and investment in further production and thus new jobs, to the benefit of all. Protection of individual rights, including property rights, is the requirement of harmony of people’s interests and everyone’s well-being, with the added benefit of goodwill and benevolence among all.

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