Collectivist theory springs from a selfish urge to restrain the success of others, for fear that they may secure resources sufficient to out-reproduce the self concerned. The matter is not represented to the mind clearly or in terms remotely like this, but in practice it has characteristics that are consistent with this account and with no other and certainly not with the rhetoric of collectivism. Perhaps the most striking of these is that collectivism is actually less able deliver collective goods than individualist societies.
No one should doubt that that most people prefer societies marked by low levels of inequality. It is also true that those same individuals simultaneously strive to maximise that between themselves and those below them, but this does not change the fact of their preference for equality, which is manifested in political choices and also everyday morals and custom. Introspection will confirm this. In fact, more remarkably, individuals will actually prefer equality to absolute wealth. In other words, if offered a choice between a lower income in a flat society and a higher income in a very unequal society, they would choose the former. Indeed, they will prefer the flatter society even if that society has a lower aggregate wealth. This last point is remarkable since it shows, as clearly as one could wish, that in spite of its claims egalitarianism is selfish. That is to say it will countenance lower collective wealth, implying reduced ability to withstand external threats, if that puts the self in a less relatively disadvantaged position. The continuing romance of the post-war socialist experiment – The Spirit of '45 – demonstrates this point.
Collectivist rhetoric, then, is a sly means to, a cover for, egalitarianism, which is the actual aim, not the common good. Indeed, insofar as there is a common good this is better served by a less equal society, since such societies are vastly more effective at generating wealth. Of course collectivism claims that an equal society is in the interests of all in terms of wealth and resilience, but this is obviously false since such societies deprive individuals of motivation, and eventually, as Mandeville foresaw, generate nothing but poverty. Nevertheless, the substance of the common good is in the last analysis very limited in extent. The terms 'common interest', or public interest' or 'common purpose' are hardly ever used in their literal sense, namely with the connotation that everyone feels the benefit equally, which is hardly surprising since in practise such an outcome must be vanishingly rare. Some only, and perhaps not even an absolute majority, may feel the benefit of an action deemed to be in the 'common interest', but these individuals themselves may not feel it with equal force, and there will nearly always be a gradient of benefit even within the category of winners. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise.
However, while in the vast majority of cases one may reasonably suggest that a claimed common good is in fact sectional and probably to the benefit of only a fraction of that section, there is a common good, even if it is very narrow in extent. Human populations can and do pool resources for the purpose of a) defence, and b) recovery, prospective or actual, from natural disaster. Even staunch individualists recognise the value of the armed services, the police, and the fire service, and as these examples show, it is quite wrong for collectivists to suggest that unequal societies will fail to provide resources for common purposes, for, as witness the responses of the democracies in the First and Second World Wars, they do so willingly and much more effectively than nominally collectivist societies since they have more resources to pool. Paradoxically, then, it is collectivists who are the enemies of collective endeavour, and the individualist, abused as vicious and selfish, who delivers what public virtues may actually be had.