Greater Good Vs. Personal Liberty – April 2014

In this essay we will explore two often times contradictory ways of thinking. Often at odds with one another, Collectivist and Libertarian views will be examined. First will be discussed the notion of the collective “Greater Good.” Next will be illustrated the concept of individual rights and liberties. Concluding this article will be a discussion of what individuals can do to protect their freedoms in the face of seemingly well-intentioned collective meddling.

Collective Duty to the Tribe

Collectivist ideologies always begin with the intention of promoting the “Greater Good” above that of individual interests. The idea is that in order to have a strong stable society, the interests of the State, in any whatever particular form, must take precedence over individual rights and freedoms. In other words, it is often supposed that the group itself is more important than the people and families which make up said society.

On the surface this may seem advantageous. If one wishes to protect one's people from outside influences, it may seem wise to have a powerful central authority to organize for the common defense and welfare. This is a popular phenomenon so historical context will necessarily be examined in some detail.

The Greek Peloponnesus

One way to attempt to illustrate the allure of collective thinking is by looking at ancient Greece. Known history indicates there were quite a few warring tribes in those times; probably the most notable of which were the city-states of Sparta and Athens. Sparta, and her conquest of the Helots, will establish a good frame of reference. The Athenian Plato's ideas will be looked at and compared.

Legend has it that Sparta, among many city-based tribes of the region, had developed a fascinatingly militaristic culture. Spartan culture, according to the stories recounted by historians, was about a warrior-based way of life. Initially, this may have been intended as a way of safeguarding the tribe against conquest from outside forces.

Conquest of the Helots

Utilitarian and austere by most standards, which is where we get the term “spartan,” the civilization of Sparta was quite sound in terms of stability. Because the city-state possessed a military-based culture, production and innovation did not hold as high of a priority and were, in fact, often-times brutally suppressed. This turned out to be disastrous for the neighboring Helots who were a primarily agriculture based society.

Instead of what could have possibly been a friendly and mutually beneficial interaction with their neighbors, the Spartans conquered the Helots and shamelessly enslaved them. The Helots' land and agricultural productivity helped sustain the growing Spartan population. The Helots were used to the advantage of the Spartans who seemed to view the Helots as an inferior people who were there to be taken advantage of. Here we can see a historical example of a “might makes right” philosophy.

Ancient Black Apparatus

Though oftentimes idolized and glorified, it should be known that Spartans had a “Secret Police.” The Spartan black apparatus, possibly the earliest known in Western Civilization, had the job of preventing the Helots, or anyone for that matter, from using creative ingenuity to promote changes which could upset the stable Spartonian way of life. It is said that if a Helot, or even a Spartan, was believed to be committing the crime of original thought, “upsetting the apple-cart” as it were, the Secret Police would sneak into the thought criminal's home in the middle of the night to put the perpetrator to death. If this sounds not unlike the spy agencies of the post-modern era, it may not be an unfair comparison.

It can be clearly seen that a tribe would definitely want to avoid the fate of the Helots. The Helots failed to adequately promote a culture of mutual self-defense so they paid dearly. It is clearly disadvantageous for a society to allow itself to become the complete slaves of another.

Where Plato Went Wrong

Desirable it is for a community to organize for mutual self-defense. What may seem peculiar upon close examination is that the usual proposed solution to this conundrum is normally to consolidate power in the hands of a few privileged individuals. Even Plato of Athens promoted a sort of centralized authority toward the end of having a well-defended long-lived civilization.

An historic event which seems to have bothered Plato a great deal was the trial and execution of an earlier Athenian philosopher named Socrates. Socrates reportedly questioned everything including the religion and governance of Athens. Though a Democracy, there was much centralization of power in the hands of the wealthiest and most influential of Athenian citizens. Socrates was famously tried by assembly and sentenced to death by drinking of poison Hemlock.

It is oft believed that a primary reason for Plato to write his dialectical known as the “Republic,” was to try to invent a new form of government which would promote an atmosphere of tolerance toward men like Socrates who would not be mercilessly put to death for the crime of asking questions and challenging paradigm. Plato's proposed solution was to have centralized power in the hands of what he called “Philosopher Kings.” Somehow the notion that power is inherently corruptive did not seem to occur to Plato but he did apparently admit that he was not entirely clear on how it would be possible to put power into the hands of the virtuous, only the virtuous, and keep it that way.

Plato’s Greatest Mistake

In Plato's Republic a warrior-based way of life was promoted not unlike that of Sparta. A similar eugenics philosophy was even proposed as a way of ensuring a mentally and physically able citizenry. The idea of a limited government did not seem to factor in. It was assumed that centralized power would have to continue to exert an incredible extent of control over people's lives. This degree of control was the norm amongst the City-States and submission to authority was considered a virtue as it was thought to promote the Greater Good.

Where Plato's Republic differed from the Oligarchic Democracies and Monarchies of the time was in how the leaders where selected and why. Plato's Philosopher-Kings were to select new members from amongst the aging warrior-caste who had demonstrated virtue and wisdom. It was his notion of an ideal collectivist society. In Plato's mind, this would create a State which would respect philosophy with its incessant questioning and virtuous thinking. He seems to have believed that, with the right people in power, a society would remain unified for their common-defense without infringing on the individual’s right to free thought and expression.

Plato's solution falls short because, in Plato's time as much as in any other, it can been observed that authoritarians actually get power from the common citizenry who are easily duped. The “everyday person” who makes up the majority, not the Socratic philosopher, is where power actually comes from. Unlike Socratics, the majority of people are easily swayed by sophistry and other manipulative strategies. Oligarchs were notorious in ancient times for being able to take control of Democracies and Monarchies alike with their trickery and conniving ways.

Plato can be forgiven; he really was just trying to imagine a way that thinkers and questioners could be in charge instead of in prison. It is not hard to see why he is often thought of as being hopelessly idealistic. His view that a ruling class can be established which would be anything other than the corrupt and decadent examples seen throughout history seems painfully optimistic.

Flash Forward to Rome and Beyond

In addition to emotionally charged oration; bribing, bullying, and distracting are common ways for ambitious power-seekers to take control of a society regardless of whether or not the manipulators have any qualities which may be thought of as virtuous. In Rome, Julius Caesar understood how this works. Caesar, who claimed to be descended from a god, by the way, somehow convinced the Roman Senate to support his military ambitions in Gaul. When he returned with spoils of war, Caesar addressed the masses and shared some spoils in the form of doled out bread. He also kept the people distracted with spectacles such as the mock naval battles called Naumachiae. This is often sited as the origin of the catch-phrase “bread and circuses” though the practice is likely much older. With these tactics, among others such as the use of bribes, Caesar was able to usurp an enormous level of power. This is where we get the catch-phrase “bread and circuses.”

It is in these ways, to name a few, that the power-hungry and domineering are able to get power. Socratic Philosophers, usually content to meditate on their belly-buttons so to speak, rarely even try to seize power. When they do, as may be the case with Thomas Jefferson and perhaps a few others, a civilization can prosper in incredible ways. This rarely happens but when it does the “Philosopher King” will usually dismantle excessive centralization of power because of reoccurring problems associated with too much power in the hands of the few.

Real Dangers of Collectivism

Having discussed how the “Greater Good” notion of Collectivism, which is characterized by centralized power and control, is appealing because of the security it may offer a society, it can be seen that making sure the “right people” are put in and kept in power is problematic. The corrupt are those who usually seek power. Likewise, those who get power are corrupted by it.

Putting the good of one’s society above one’s own interests does seem a virtue. It seems to be understood on an instinctive level that there is honor in doing so. However, when studying the history of any civilization, it should become obvious that a select few parasitic and predatory groups of individuals will invoke this argument, not because they care about the well-being of the society or the people who comprise it, but for their own selfish, and sadistic, purposes.

Examples of this phenomenon are so incredibly numerous it cannot be escaped. What would be a challenge is finding an example where an appeal to the “Greater Good” proved to be something other than a trick to consolidate power into the hands of a few privileged, controlling, and oppressive people. The pattern is obvious when one knows what to look for and it can be found repeating over and over again throughout recorded history.


Incredibly, heads of state and other supposed “leaders” oftentimes call upon the people to make “sacrifices” of all kinds. They will rarely use confrontational “you” statements which would warn people to take a defensive posture against their rulers. Kings and presidents alike will say “we” need to make sacrifices though, typically, such leaders fail to make any such sacrifices themselves.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party are generally the go-to example and it does illustrate this phenomenon handily. While many Germans, often including soldiers, suffered from malnutrition and related illnesses, Hitler himself ate nothing but the finest vegetarian cuisine. He even had a staff of professional food tasters to make sure he was not poisoned.

Continuing to live lives of luxury and privilege, the ruling class will have their people expect to have to tolerate ever more austere and restrictive conditions. Ruling bodies like a congress or parliament are no different. They will cut benefits while regulating your small business into oblivion while they vote to give themselves pay raises and accept money and perks from powerful moneyed interests.

Simply stated, a collective notion of coming together for common defense makes sense. However, just as simply, it can be stated that allowing oneself to be bamboozled into making unnecessary sacrifices of freedoms and prosperity makes no sense whatsoever. Society benefits from organizing toward a common good but individuals have to be wary of those who would exploit their notions of societal duty toward nefarious ends.

Personal Liberty

Ruling classes always seem to “push the envelope” until the citizenry gets entirely fed up with their abuses. Over the centuries, the supremacy of the privileged few has been challenged and limits have been codified into Law. Often given as an example, the Magna Carta, though initially an attempt by aristocrats to further their own interests, set a precedent of supremacy of Law by which later ideologies took root. Eventually, constitutional forms of government became prevalent where all peoples, regardless of class received assurances their rights would be observed through constitutional articles known as declarations or bills of rights.

Over the last few centuries, a few nations, like the United States and Switzerland, have, at least in theory, rejected the very notion of class.

Inalienable Rights

The premise of inalienable rights is such that the individual human being, historically the adult male, has certain rights they are born with. One could refer to these as “God-given” rights but a belief in G_d is not a prerequisite in comprehending the meaning. Most seem to instinctively be aware that they should be allowed to move about freely, live their lives, and prosper.

Put another way, it is natural for one to expect that one may conduct oneself in whatever manner one sees fit so long as one’s behavior does not infringe on the life or liberty of others. Were this the whole of the Law, the world at large may be found to be just and equitable.

Unfortunately, within every society there are those who would attempt to control and dominate toward their own ends at the expense of others and, as previously illustrated, there is often a real threat from outside forces as well. This being the case, one cannot simply expect that natural born rights will be respected. Rights must be secured and protected by virtue of passion and courage. Ever since the invention of the Gutenberg press allowed for wide-spread dissemination of information, a struggle between people who want to live their lives as they see fit and wanton control freaks who seem to want nothing more than to oppress and cause suffering has been written in the history books. Methods of securing and protecting liberty will be examined.

Paper: Never Stopped a Bullet

Documents like a bill of rights do not grant rights. Rights are inherent but must be safeguarded. That such codified maxims exist is reassuring but not binding. Words on paper can be easily ignored.

Governments, which can mean any hierarchical control systems, will not respect your rights without being kept in check. They will, notoriously, use any and all matter of excuses to infringe on civil liberties and commit outright abuses. Before the most outrageous of abuses can be committed, such as genocide, the host population must be disarmed.

Infamous tyrant Mao Zedong once observed that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. To cement his control over the people his government, like many oppressive governments throughout history, he disarmed the general populace. This is a common practice in cultures world-wide to insure dominance by a ruling class.

Before the invention of the firearm, people all over Europe and Asia where disarmed by oppressive regimes. Only freemen, not serfs or slaves, were allowed to possess swords or the like. The legends behind Okinawan karate often claim the martial art was developed as a reaction to disarmament. It is important to note that the indigenous peoples are known as a peaceful people. One would not need to disarm them unless one wished to make them victims. This is a common theme. If one does not wish to be victimized, it is wise for one to be wary of any restrictions proposed to civilian weapon ownership.

Securing and Protecting Rights

So then if rights must be fought for, and oppressors do not like guns, does that mean that initiated lethal force is how to fight tyranny? Before too much time is wasted pondering this thought: the answer is no. Armed uprising is usually a bad idea. There are methods but sating mob-style blood-lust is not one of them.

Armed Rebellion is for Suckers

It is important to note that firearms cannot stop government oppression from within one’s own country. Weapons in the hands of law abiding citizens tend to deter crime and, as such, can help prevent wonton government criminality. However, armed rebellion is a destructive enterprise which inevitably leads to the establishment of an even more oppressive regime.

One of the best works of historical fiction is, perhaps, George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm. In it, we are shown a caricature of the Russian revolution which lead to some of the most infamous crimes against humanity. Born Eric Blair but writing under the pseudonym George Orwell, he also wrote the often quoted 1984. In both of these great stories, we are warned that those calling for an armed rebellion against tyranny are only interested in installing themselves in power where they will be even more brutal than their predecessors.

George Orwell

Here are just a couple of the websites hosting his work:


Because exterior threats persist, it needs be examined how societal interests, specifically common defense, can be provided for while at the same time allowing for maximum liberty. The central question of this essay has been established: how does a society protect itself and its way of life without infringing unduly on civil rights?

Put simply: a combination of civilian armament and defensive military training. No foreign power will dare occupy a land where every able-bodied man, and woman, is armed and trained for combat. This is especially true in woodland and hilly terrain. This is an handy explanation of why Nazi Germany choose not to occupy Switzerland during World War II. It also explains why the United States is being conquered through financial means rather than military invasion.

Because many of the founders of the United States were concerned about the threat posed to civil liberties by standing armies the militia was intended to be the backbone of national defense. It was for this reason that the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution included a guarantee of the right to bear arms without infringement. This may be a good time to point out that the very first laws which imposed controls over civilian gun ownership where designed to prevent slaves from owning weapons.

In recent years, some (authoritarian cowards) have argued that the right to bear arms enjoyed by United States Citizens should only apply while serving in the militia. The central problem of this argument, aside from the vulgar criminality of disarming citizens, is that the militia is not comprised of armed civilians; the militia is armed civilians. Though one may try to argue that the National Guards are the militia, the truth is that if you are “serving” in the militia, it essentially just means that you are a civilian with a firearm. Add training onto that and you are now a part of a well regulated militia.

The militia topic is worthy of an entire encyclopedia of essays by itself. A rifle cannot stop a nuclear missile, it is true, but it can stop an occupation. Nothing says, “pork you tyrants” than a bunch law-abiding peaceful-loving gun owners.

Self Sufficiency

Tyrants like nothing more than for their subjects to be dependent on them. Dependency is the foundation of tyranny. In an age where many are hopelessly dependent on government and corporations, it is little surprise we are seeing more and more governmental and corporate abuses.

Like many discovered during the Great Depression, simple things like owning livestock and canning food can go a long way to surviving economic oppression created by a predatory financial elite. It is a lot of hard work but anything worth doing usually is. For more sophisticated strategies, please see this Devtome article on permaculture:

Civil Disobedience

This is a terse but fancy way of saying that one should not tolerate injustice so must not comply with unjust orders. Civil disobedience can and will get one beaten, arrested, incarcerated, tortured, and possibly even killed. It is not a strategy for cowards but is an absolute must if one desires a free and open society for one’s progeny.

Civil disobedience is important, not just in the end, but as a means. It is an attitude and a way of life. It is sensible to pick one’s battles, but battle one must. It is better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s back with a boot on the face.

Not only is civil disobedience an effective form of resistance, it may be the only effective form of resistance. Ultimately, when rights are violated, it is perhaps more the fault of those who follow unlawful orders, than those who give them. Snakes cannot help but be snakes. Real men and women have a choice: to the easy wrong thing or the difficult right thing.

To put a little mass around this concept, the following links should help illustrate:

As a warm up, we see how a body of teachers decided they were not going to tolerate submitting to a preceived injustice in the form of a standardized test:

Then there are sex-strikes where women try to institute change by withholding sex. This tactic, by itself, does not work but when used in conjunction with other acts of passive resistance and civil disobedience can get results:

The Guardian gives more examples but one should be wary of information gleaned from any major news media, even the Guardian. Note that Martin Luther King Jr. is referred to as an “insurgent:”

There are many more examples, some quite creative.


When history is studied and analyzed, it can be found that a collective sense of duty to one’s society is helpful and even necessary to promote security. It can also be gleaned that too often the notion of homeland security can be used as a manipulative tactic against the very people it is supposed to benefit. Essentially, though collective organization has its place, individual rights and liberties must be respected.

The right of the citizen to carry weapons without compromise is one of the most important of the inalienable rights. It is an extension of one’s natural born prerogative to defend oneself and others. Heavy-handed governments always infringe on this right so it can be thought of as a bulwark against tyranny.

Furthermore, one finds that personal freedom will not be observed unless won through acts of bravery and courage. Fighting for justice of this sort can be, and often is, extraordinarily dangerous. That having been said, the very act of defiance can be a victory. One cannot usually choose how one dies but one may choose how one lives.

One must live life heroically or die a slave.
Sociology | Politics | Philosophy

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