Nearly every facet of modern western civilisation is based on a simple premise: that the individual makes better decisions than a group. What if that is untrue?
The entire neoliberal construct (limited government, free enterprise, and personal freedom) is predicated on the notion of the individual as ascendant to the group. The dominant feature of this philosophy is this distain for the group as a quality. Government should be limited because groups make poorer decisions than individuals, private markets excel because they rely on the decisions of brilliant individuals, and personal freedom is phrased in the format of freeing the individual from limits imposed by the group.
Yet what we know of ourselves, what we can see around us, and what we know about evolution, all attest to this as fallacy. We need our groups, our families, our communities, our markets, for our individual sanity and happiness. We evolved as groups, that is our foundational and inescapable inheritance. We cannot think ourselves into solitary individuality, we know we are individual members of groups.
What is the difference between individual and group decision-making? Individuals make great decisions for themselves within the confines of their knowledge and experience, groups make better decisions for the group because they are unbounded by the knowledge and experience of any one individual, they harness the collective knowledge and experience of all of the individual members of the group. This group orientation has been the basis of our evolutionary success – and why the big, solitary cats are facing extinction.
Furthermore, individuals make different decisions in the context of a group than they make on their own. We know that individuals suppress their impulsivity, and engage their empathy, when they are in the presence of others – things that they do not do when they are on their own. The reason we do this is because we instinctively know that our own decisions are limited by our own experience. And because we know that there is value in experience, we know that there must be value in the experiences of others that we have not had a chance to experience for ourselves. Groups make different decisions than individuals would, or even could, in the same situation.
So if it is true that individuals make different, not necessarily better, decisions than groups, what are the implications for modern society?
First, it would be an equal fallacy to suppose that a group always makes better decisions than an individual. Proper understanding reveals the simple truth: it depends on the situation and the decision that is being made. We are both individuals and members of groups at the same time, and both are equally important to our success, prosperity and happiness, collectively and as individuals. Recognising the simple truth, that we are both individuals and members of communities simultaneously, is the more complex but essential standard around which we can move forward.
It follows then that the primary task must be to divine distinctions between when it is appropriate to promote individual choice, and when it is appropriate to promote group choice. This task is simplified with an understanding of the evolutionary origins of our dual natures. Our evolutionary success is predicated on the combination of specialised individuals, operating within the context of a cohesive group. The group makes better decisions about what problems need to be solved, the individuals contribute the widest possible range of solutions based on a wide range of specialisations, and the group makes the best decision about which of those solutions to implement. This is the fundamental premise of democracy, and provides us with our first standard.
Further exploration of the prerequisites necessary to enable the maximum contribution from the individuals in a group reveals that the individual sense of safety acquired by each person in the group is essential. Our most basic metabolism is that in the face of fear we compete, and within safety we cooperate. And so our second standard emerges: the primary purpose of the group must be to ensure the universal safety of all individuals in the group.
Lastly, we acknowledge that individual incentive is a vital aspect of our natures – it is what elicits the vast range of possible solutions, leveraging our individual specialisations. The success of the collective is dependent on the freedom of the individuals to pursue their personal motivations. A successful human society does not place an expectation on the individuals within it to suppress their personal ambitions in favour of the group; a successful human society allows for this, and incorporates this natural tendency within its structures.
So the mechanism of the group is democracy, its purpose is to ensure the universal safety of all of its individuals, and those individuals are free to make their maximum contributions to the extent of their personal motivations.
Neoliberalism and the unnecessary promotion of the ascendance of the individual, be damned!
Communism and the enforced subservience of the individual to the common good, be gone!