Individualism, Collectivism, and the Global War on Terrorism



It can now be safely said, due to repetitive executive proclamation, congressional acquiescence as well as positive action, and the broad employment of our war-fighting means abroad under an approved plan, that America is in a global war against those who have used or intend to use terrorism. Unless future congressional action offers further definition or places constraints on those charged with carrying out this war, Americans must clearly understand the character of the war we are in and the implications of the newly emerging rules guiding its conduct. One of the most significant of these implications is a shift in the emphasis between two of the defining characteristics of our republic between individualism and collectivism. That this will be a generational war due to both its character as well as its ends portends a significant shift towards collectivist principles and activities, the consequences of which offer obvious contradictions and challenges to our way of life.


The cornerstone of both our political as well as our economic philosophy is individualism. Each individual is endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these individual rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these individual rights, governments are instituted among men. Our government does not exist to secure collective rights, but individual rights. Government is a necessary evil needed to ensure each individual some hope in the attainment of their diverse passions in their individual pursuit of happiness. In this arrangement, there has always existed an inbuilt tension between collectivist ends, or the ends of the people as a whole as represented by the government, and individualistic ends. The tension exists because the primary end of the system is the achievement of individualistic ends, ends which are necessarily as diverse as the people which have them. The character of these ends being defined by the nature of humanity, emphasis placed in our formative government documents on liberty, to the degree that individual liberty is constrained we stray from our foundational framework. Part of that framework is the same inbuilt tension between our different branches of government.


It is this system, with its emphasis on the individual as unconstrained as possible by government direction, coercion, or centralized planning, which forms the basis of our free market system. The invisible hand of the market is expressed in the distillation of countless individual actions taken in the free pursuit of individual desires constrained only by foreknown principles, which principles form the necessary boundaries all have agreed by which their actions will be constrained. These boundaries are not only foreknown, but also formulated and agreed to by mutual consultation and decision in a government made up of and controlled by the governed. Our understanding of and respect for basic human rights requires us to subject decisions to constrain these rights to review.


In cases where individuals have transgressed the law, their liberty as a result of this transgression may only be constrained by proof of guilt, such proofs subject to further constraints. These include such legal constraints as the right to judicial review and trial by a jury of ones peers, due process, constraints on admissible evidence and methods for obtaining evidence, and countless others. Our judicial system exists to ensure justice in both the particular sense of ensuring a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven as well as in the general sense of ensuring the protection of our basic individual human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


Individual, basic human rights are absolute and exist without reference to a particular end. They do not depend upon utilitarian reasoning for their legitimacy, but are rather moral goods in and of themselves, depending for their legitimacy on self evidence and reason. That we all ought to desire what is really good for us is self evident as it is impossible to conceive of the opposite proposition that we all ought to desire what is really bad for us. What is a real good for us is what we, due to our human nature, need to fulfill our innate potentialities. The critical innate potentiality here addressed is that we, as equally created human beings, are free moral agents. Liberty is an absolute moral good that we are all under a moral obligation to seek. Collective ends, by contrast, are all particularistic. They depend upon utilitarian ends means rationalization. When, however, the morality of the means is determined solely in terms of its utility in achieving the desired end without regard to basic individual rights, morality becomes entirely relative, the difficulty in regards to our democracy compounded by placing the authority to make such decisions totally out of the bounds of political discourse and the sole domain of executive authority. From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, the moral or immoral character of the means is not a question, its moral character determined solely in terms of its utility. One can quickly see, apart from a respect for individual rights and the restrictions which systems based upon them put on government, how easily the worst evil may be justified by government. It really makes no difference, in and of itself, whether the means is water-boarding or the rack so long as the utilitarian test is passed.


It is unfortunate that the news media refers to the current war almost exclusively in the context of our activities in Iraq. Iraq is only the most visible front of our war on terrorism, and focusing public attention here alone is a disservice to the national debate. Let's be clear! If we are in fact in a war against terrorism, we are in World War III. It is a war which reaches into every corner of the globe and is characterized by rapidly changing views on pre-emption, prevention, as well as views of legitimate means in the prosecution of war. Of all of our national social activities, war is the one most characterized by collectivism. We much more readily give up individual rights in war time due to the real or perceived threat to any hope of achieving our individual desires should we fail as a collective in the enterprise of war. It is due to this inherent threat to our individual liberties and, in consequence, our way of life that war should be entered into with extreme circumspection. Such review and reflection should be proportionate both to the scope and the anticipated length of the activity. The scope of the war on terror is global. Its length is generational. Its heretofore governing and directing authority has tended to be unilateral with little oversight. Laws governing conventional war are often viewed as inappropriate to our current activities. The rules governing modern war are being rewritten, along with perhaps our views on the distinctions between war, peace, and crime. Title 10 intelligence preparation of the battlespace is now relevant to every corner of the globe, and congressional protestation on executive prerogative seen as a lack of patriotism or, what is certainly true, duplicity and politicking for personal gain, it being incomprehensible that our elected representatives are less informed than we are as to our military actions in this war. If we really are, in fact, in World War III, then perhaps these restraints and complaints really are unpatriotic. It would seem, however, that we could come to a national consensus on the character of the war we are engaged in. The American people have clearly and repetitively been told that this war is global and generational. Congressional action as well as inaction has repeatedly lent credibility to these statements. We must now be resolved to face the true challenges as well as consequences and threats of this new reality unless the congress, or the people due to the pusillanimous inaction of their elected representatives, provide further definition and restraint. How do we maintain the primacy of the rights of the individual, which primacy our democracy depends upon, in the face of a generational call to a uniquely collectivist end? How do we constrain the societal tendencies to increasingly embrace collectivist ends in this generational conflict? Lastly, but most importantly, how do we maintain our own democracy while attempting to spread democracy, and the hope for its accompanying peace, stability, and prosperity, to humanity at large?