Individuals & Collectives

The conflict between collective good and individual choice.

There’s invariably a tussle between ‘collective good’ and ‘individual choice’.

It’s rarely presented as a clash between two value systems; it shows up as conflicts over specific issues.

It’s hardly abstract; examples abound at every corner.

People drowning their funds in gambling, in liquor, in substances that others would say aren’t ‘good’ for them. And a country, New Zealand passing legislation to prevent those born after 2008 buying cigarettes.

Countless hours in front of screens or video games ‘wasted’, diverted from ‘productive’ activities. Is that what people should spend their time on? And a country, China, restricting gaming hours.

Millions of dollars going to yet another platform to ‘waste’ time, to gossip and spam messages. Is there a ‘better’ way to direct smart people’s time and effort?

People trying prevent others from reading a book or watching a movie – without even having read or watched it themselves, without even knowing what it is they’re so ferociously agitating against.

Who Chooses

At heart it’s really a question of whether people can choose for themselves, or someone ‘needs’ to choose for them.

The belief in individual agency v/s ‘collective optimization’.

Collective optimization isn’t optimization by a collective, but optimization of the collective. Whether it’s for the collective is a different question altogether, probably one you can only answer on a case to case basis.

Collective optimization means someone decides what’s important. And then channels humans like sheep to achieve that vision in the most effective manner.

So it’s still a matter of determining what’s important – what matters, what has value.

The question is who chooses.

Whether individuals can determine that for themselves.

Or someone ‘needs’ to do it for them. ‘Optimizing’ something – health, wealth, whatever – for someone – a family, an organization, a nation.

Why would someone ‘need’ to choose for anyone else?

It’s the belief most people can’t choose for themselves, can’t act in their own best interests.

Either they’re fundamentally incapable – they lack the requisite knowledge or thinking ability.

Or if capable, unwilling to act on those choices – perhaps lacking willpower or succumbing to temptation – and need to be ‘rescued’ from themselves.

Effective and Desirable

There are two questions here.

The first, and less important one.

Is it effective?

Does authority directing action produce better outcomes than the free market of individual agents?

The second – is it desirable? Even if it were effective, is it something you’d want?

The second matters more because even if was effective it wouldn’t mean much if it was undesirable.


The question of effectiveness is the usual one of free markets v/s authority.

Those against free markets tend to believe individuals don’t know what’s good for them.

Whether it’s the capability or the willingness that’s lacking, they won’t choose the ‘right’ thing.

Left to themselves, they’ll indulge their vices, smoke or drink or slack off and laze around.

In a softer way, they need to be ‘nudged’ and incentivized to move in certain directions.

Put simply, shorn of such dressing, they need to be shepherded.

The counter-argument is that it’s actually the coordinating and controlling that is inefficient.

No apparatchik can achieve what the free market of millions of actors can bring about.

A counter to that is that sometimes the market is efficient, but it doesn’t optimize for the right thing.

The tragedy of the commons – that individual agents optimizing for themselves don’t lead to a collective optimum for everybody, local individual maxima don’t lead to a global optimum.

Everyone fishing in the river, maximizing their catch today, will one day deplete it.

Or another counter, that the market knows the price of things, but not their value.

One reason the air, the water, the forests are how they are today is because no one could monetize them, and so no one valued them.

But you can just as easily argue the reverse, that the market finds value where others miss it.

How often that which is put down as ‘useless’ turns out to be extraordinarily useful. The history of innovation is littered with such examples, from electricity to telephones to microwaves.

Arguing the point further isn’t what interests me. Much ink has been spilt on the subject and it’s evident to me that anything I write won’t settle it, or even add anything new.

So I’ll leave it at this – perhaps, sometimes, in some cases, authority optimizes, and otherwise it doesn’t.

Where it doesn’t optimize, you definitely don’t want it.

Because any amount of authority implies giving up that much freedom, and if you’re not going to achieve better results in exchange for what you’re giving up, you’re making a poor bargain.

You can always get into a tangential discussion about privilege, that those who value freedom are in a position where they can care about freedom in the first place.

And not everyone is in that position, and perhaps freedom is at a higher level in the hierarchy of needs than sustenance.

Which is true enough, though it’s just as true that, barring exceptions, in most cases, giving up freedom doesn’t materialize into better outcomes.

You end up just as badly off as you were, but now devoid of free choice as well.

The interesting question is about desirability where authority does optimize over free choice, assuming you could know that.

If you knew that giving up freedom would translate into better outcomes, would you make that choice?


It’s not uncommon to hear how video games / movies / tabloids / alcohol / smoking / (insert pet peeve here) are harmful and holding back progress.

Perhaps it’s true, and you could achieve a lot more if such ‘distractions’ didn’t exist.

But do you really want to achieve more?

If I really did, then wouldn’t I have gone ahead and done it even with these distractions around?

To be compelled to do it probably doesn’t make for very happy living.

The question is really whether human collectives are to be run like ant colonies, with the colony dedicated toward or optimized for something.

The individual ant doesn’t matter. He’s worthless; his survival or demise irrelevant.

The fate of the colony is the sole concern.

The question of what to optimize for doesn’t even arise yet.

Nor the question of who should determine that.

Impossible as these questions are to answer, they’re anyways secondary.

Were they to be answered, you still don’t know whether it’s desirable, whether channeling human beings toward some higher altar is something you’d want to pursue.

Free Choice

Free choice implies two things.

The belief that individuals can choose for themselves.

And that nannies telling them what to do are neither necessary nor desirable.

The first point is that freedom is a first principle, an end in itself, important unto itself even if it doesn’t ‘achieve’ anything tangible.

In fact, it’s important even if it achieves sub-optimal results.

I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary.

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

G.K Chesterton

Not everything is geared toward optimization.

If you’re being operated by a doctor, of course you’d want an expert, someone who does it very well. Just as you don’t want a total amateur performing at a concert – you want someone good.

Some things require special talent, skill – not everyone can do them. They’re the reserve of a select few.

But, as Chesterton puts it, blowing their nose and writing their own love letters are things people might want to do themselves, even if others or ‘professionals’ can do a better job of these for them.

And perhaps, though that’s not what this is about, the ordinary things, the things ‘common to all men’ – the things anybody can do and that you want to do yourself, are more precious than the extraordinary things, the things that only a select few can do.

Freedom as a first principle is that being able to, and doing, something you want to do yourself is more valuable than having someone else do it for you, even if they did a ‘better’ job of it.

Making your own mistake can be preferable to having someone choose wisely for you.

Taken to an extreme, perhaps someone could live your life for you better than you – but would you desire that?

Giving up free choice also runs into the practical principal agent problem, which is what makes nannies who make your choices for you undesirable.

There’s always the very real chance that nannies are simply making everyone do what they themselves want to do.

At best imposing their will, at worst empire-building and accumulating something – wealth, status, power.

Even were the intentions of nannies beyond doubt, it doesn’t solve the problem.

Because someone, somewhere, decides what it is that others must do, you always run into the problem that what they decide isn’t what you want to do, what you’d have chosen.

The problem of value mismatch – what they value isn’t what you value.

There aren’t universal values – meaning something everyone can agree on.

Look hard enough and you’ll find someone who doesn’t care about motherhood and apple-pie – something everyone’s supposed to like .

Just as you’ll find people who knowingly neglect some sacred cow – health, wealth, relationships, power, status – in exchange for something else, because that matters more to them.

Anarchy v/s Freedom

Freedom is also the freedom to curb freedom, to become unfree.

“I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself. Complete anarchy would not merely make it impossible to have any discipline or fidelity; it would also make it impossible to have any fun. To take an obvious instance, it would not be worth while to bet if a bet were not binding. The dissolution of all contracts would not only ruin morality but spoil sport. Now betting and such sports are only the stunted and twisted shapes of the original instinct of man for adventure and romance, of which much has been said in these pages. And the perils, rewards, punishments, and fulfilments of an adventure must be real, or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare. If I bet I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting. If I challenge I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging. If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing

GK Chesterton

Which is to say that freedom is not the absence of all constraints.

Freedom as the absence of all constraints is not simply illogical, but also self-serving.

The argument the loser runs to when the bet doesn’t go his way.

To move the pieces of the chessboard in whichever manner you want to.

Or refuse to hit your shots in the box at tennis.

Or decline to repay a loan.

The absence of all constraints is anarchy, not freedom.

Freedom is free choice, not removing all constraints, but to be able to choose among constraints.

To agree to play a game of chess or tennis is to agree to be bound by its rules.

Free choice is about making the decision to play – accepting rules, complying with the constraints, in return for whatever you get from playing.

Unfreedom, the curbing of freedom is not in the imposition of constraints themselves, but in the removing of being able to choose among constraints.

When humans were herded into concentration camps.

Or more commonly, when poverty eliminates choices and forecloses options.

In one sense, there’s still choice – the decision to exist is a choice – but there’s no denying that the choices become fewer and harder.

What is true though, is that unfreedom too can be chosen.

Free choice isn’t something to be imposed.

It’s not necessarily ‘better’ than collectivity, not something one must choose in the conflict between the two.