Ben Franklin, Individualism, and Collective Action

From Benjamin Franklin: An American Life:

The essence of Franklin is that he was a civic-minded man.  He cared more about public behavior than inner piety, and he was more interested in building the City of Man than the City of God.  The maxim he had proclaimed on his first trip back from London –“Man is a sociable being”– was reflected not only in his personal collegiality, but also in his belief that benevolence was the binding virtue of society.  As Poor Richard put it, “He that drinks his cider alone, let him catch his horse alone.”

This gregarious outlook would lead him, as a twentysomething printer during the 1730s, to use his Junto to launch a variety of community organizations, including a lending library, fire brigade, and night watchmen corp, and later a hospital, militia, and college.  “The good men may do separately,” he wrote, “is small compared with what they may do collectively.”

Franklin picked up his penchant for forming do-good associations from Cotton Mather and others, but his organizational fervor and galvanizing personality made him the most influential force in instilling this as an enduring part of American life.  “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations,” Tocqueville famously marveled.  “Hospitals, prisons and schools take shape this way.”

Tocqueville came to the conclusion that there was an inherent struggle in America between two opposing influences: the spirit of rugged individualism versus the conflicting spirit of community and association building,  Franklin would have disagreed.  A fundamental aspect of Franklin’s life, and of the American society he helped to create was that individualism and communitarianism, so seemingly contradictory, were interwoven.  The frontier attracted barn-raising pioneers who were ruggedly individualistic as well as fiercely supportive of their community.  Franklin was the epitome of this admixture of self-reliance and civic involvement, and what he exemplified became part of the American character.

(Emphasis mine)

This echoes my own view of the mutually reinforcing relationship between individualism and community involvement, and explains why I don’t find the two impulses to be at all at odds with each other.  What I like about Franklin’s version of collective action is that each effort arose at the level of the local community; each was formed to address a specific, real problem the community faced; and they were largely private and voluntary organizations. To my mind this kind of flexible, ad-hoc local arrangement is the right way to get things done collectively.

What saddens me about American society is that we are losing our will and ability to solve problems this way.  More and more we are approaching collective action on the European model, putting all our resources in the hands of the government and asking them to do all the thinking for us.  This results in bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all solutions which tend to linger on long after the original problem has gone away.  But more importantly, I think it’s destroying a vital and unique aspect of our national character.  As

pointed out
 the other day, a lot of people either believe they aren’t capable, or simply can’t be bothered, to take society’s problems into their own hands.

I get the impression that people look at libertarians (and Objectivists, Anarchists, etc.) and think that we have simplistic world view that is focused single-mindedly on looking out for the near-term interests of number 1, and is constitutionally opposed to all forms of cooperative action.  I don’t know, maybe this is true of some libertarians.  But my own view, and I suspect that of many other liberty-lovers, is not so black and white.  It’s not so much that we despise all forms of cooperation; it’s that we want to get back to the very American value of solving the problem at hand (rather than all problems anywhere, ever) privately, voluntarily, flexibly, at the community level.

Some might say that in a globalized society, this kind of community-oriented thinking is no longer practical.  But the community hasn’t vanished; it has just changed shape and become less bound to geography.  In fact, we have better tools than ever before for spontaneous grassroots collaboration.

I think one of my New Years’ resolutions will be to participate in at least one community project or organization designed to address a concrete problem without recourse to government assistance.  And I think I’m going to start taking other people’s politics seriously in direct proportion to their willingness to participate in local solutions, as opposed to lobbying for legislative change.

View All


  1. That’s why I am a declared “Communist Libertarian”

    And it’s funny, that you quoted the drinking cider alone, catching horse alone.

    I am not a true Libertarian. In that there are certain issues I feel affect the common good. Drinking and driving being such, as I believe it has high risk of affecting others well-being which I do not believe true Libertarianism allows for. I am also not an isolationist as many Libertarians are. I learned on the playground that just because you want to ignore antagonists and the world around doesn’t mean that world will let you do so.

    That said, I also believe in the need for community, support for those who are less capable, etc. And as much as possible, an even or at least reasonable fair chance start in life. (Sure, someone is going to inherit money from dad. But such inheritance should not be prerequisite for opportunity, ie: education.)

    That said, I do not believe people should be forced (taxed) into communism but should be able to elect to participate in communism or not. In that, no, you shouldn’t be forced to pay for everything. But if you don’t contribute to society don’t expect society to contribute back to you.

    Hence, I oppose 100% welfare but support a “job to every person” concept. I understand that not every human being is economically efficient. So I am will to have society compensate for the productivity loss of someone less efficient…such as a handicapped individual.

    But don’t expect a free ride from society without giving back to society. Outside of children and those in childlike states or vegetative states there is no one incapable of contributing to society. Even quadrapalegics could be used to watch and review security videos in areas of child kidnappings. Perhaps even leading to the rescue of said children. Which would make such quadrapalegics who might feel totally useless burdens to instead feel useful and good about themselves.

    That said, I think technology has reached a point that we should be able to direct at a bare minimum a portion of our taxes. Yes, presently Congress has the power of budget. But why not the people.

    If one doesn’t like military spending and thinks NASA is a waste. Fine, your money can go to welfare programs and environmentalism. Where as I would allocate a larger portion of my taxes to space & technology. Obviously, there needs to be a general fund. But hey, if one had 50% of their taxes go into the general fund and then could allocate the other 50% to up to 10 major areas. I think it would cause a dramatic change in our government.

    1. I learned on the playground that it’s a lot more fun to climb a tree.

      And no, I’m not just being flippant.

  2. Cool…

    I would just add.. as a tiny rejoinder… that it not all gov’t/state/bureaucratic actions are as black and white as you portray them. Not all bureaucracies are out there destroying voluntaristic activities… In fact.. During the 40’s-50’s and 60’s, during the period of massive bureaucratic growth in this country–voluntaristic associaitons were not declining.. but were still huge factors in everyday life…

    The major decline in voluntary community type activities–things like bowling leagues and volunteer fire departments and close-knit neighborhoods–really took off in the 1980’s and 1990’s–during the big period of at least “libertarian-insipired” conservative dominance in the Federal Government.

    Yes.. I admit that the 1970’s were bad.. there was excess there on the left.. but I don’t think the problem with the death of communities can solely be pinned on the leftist love of the state… the Rightist love of pure capitalism–with its elevation of the Free Market and money over all other possible sources of values–has had at least as much of an impact in terms of breaking down many of the communal ties that hold people together… and make them responsible for the world around them..

    Just my thoughts…

    1. Re: Cool…

      I am no historian, and some historians might say that it is too soon to analyze events in the 80s and 90s. But if I may submit one possibility:

      National characters are not fixed in stone. They change, albeit slowly. I might further postulate that their smallest measurable unit of change rate is a single generation.

      By 1980 we had not only gone through (among other events) the New Deal and the explosion in governmental oversight that accompanied WWII, but enough time had passed for those events to have become history for a whole generation. Perhaps most importantly of all, public compulsory education as we now know it, which was deliberately designed to produce cooperative “organization men”, had had time to shape the experience and outlook of nearly every involved member of the American populace.

      Franklin’s influence can’t last forever. I submit that by the 1980s and 90s, Americans had substantially forgotten how to cooperate and take initiative when left to their own devices. Not entirely, perhaps; but it takes something like a Katrina for the old spirit of community self-reliance to re-emerge even a little. I think it’s being dying away for a long time. As Iraq has shown us, it takes more than freedom for a nation to spontaneously organize itself in productive ways. Certain values have to permeate the culture for that to happen. We’re not Iraq, but we’re losing those values all the same.

  3. And I think I’m going to start taking other people’s politics seriously in direct proportion to their willingness to participate in local solutions, as opposed to lobbying for legislative change.

    That’s a very objectivist thing to say 🙂

    1. Objectivists aren’t too keen on political solutions, then?

      1. Actually, Ayn Rand was quite derisive of “political activists.” Actual Objectivists vary, but Ayn Rand though politics was a crude vessel for change.

  4. One of the things that makes me proud of York is that there are several organizations that do try to work without or as much as possible without government funds to do the things they do. Sadly some of them are not continuing to be able to do so…

    1. Which organizations are these?

      1. I can’t remember that many off the top of my head. I’ve been through a lot of different organizations. The one that sticks in my head is the Susan P. Byrnes health educations center. I’m not sure that somewhere you’d be particular interested in. They work at not using government funds in what they do, although I know this year they weren’t able to use 100% private funds which they have till now, I still find it impressive that they started up and went on for this long without. I think and I may be wrong that they York Rescue mission tryst to avoid government funds. I’m not sure though, I haven’t been through there in a while. Also they may not have been able to stick to that either. A lot of places have had troubles post Katrina since people have donated money elsewhere. I don’t think Olivia’s house uses government money. I’m not sure they’d be eligible anyway. Crispus Attucks is a school, they receive government money for the part of their organization but they’re largely self-supported. The Wellness center that I work at is non-government supported but you can’t really volunteer there at this time. Also there are lots of churches with outreach programs that presumably are supported by the church.

        Something that may be helpful in finding somewhere to volunteer is it’s a place to find service is York. You could try it by clicking on the things you’re interested in volunteering for and calling up the organizations that come up and asking if they need volunteers.

Comments are closed.